Eating Well At Annual Christmas Eve Dinner Tradition
Aldo’s is a great restaurant, and although its profile remains mysteriously low in Baltimore, it attracts a steady clientele of traveling gourmet diners who have heard others sing its praises. I like it enormously. I appreciate the obvious care taken with assembling choice ingredients, much of which are organic and locally purveyed, and the flawless preparations. And while I admire the plush feel of Aldo’s variously splendid dining rooms—all of which were hand-built by Aldo Vitale, a carpenter in his native Calabria before coming to America and finding his calling as a chef—I most often dine at the dark front bar, where the company is good, typically other diners as satisfied with themselves as I am to have found such a special place.
This year, I kept a promise to myself and went with a friend to Aldo’s on Christmas Eve to be a part of the restaurant’s La Vigilia celebration. Observed by Catholic communities around the world but most famously in Italy, this tradition, which is marked by a massive seafood feast, has come to be better known in America as “the feast of the seven fishes.” Aldo’s restaurant version of La Vigilia is but a vestigial reminder of an annual ritual that would consume months of planning (acquiring, salting, and storing), days of preparation, and many, many hours of consumption. Accounts and memories of the feast and its attendant traditions varies widely in Italy from north to south region, wealthy landlocked village to impoverished seaport town, and even from family to family, with little posturing about which tradition is real or correct. The one common element is the emphasis on seafood on a day when red meat is proscribed from the table.
What I found so appealing about Aldo’s version is how it so nimbly negotiates the terrain between respectfulness for old-world tradition and mindfulness of contemporary diners’ expectations. A $65 tasting menu comprised four courses, with the main entrée a choice between a homey salted cod dish and the brazenly sumptuous branzino, or Mediterranean sea bass, a fish unlikely to be found on a peasant family’s table, even for the most lavish meal of the year.
My dining companion, the son of an Italian woman who passed away between last Christmas and this one, was reassured by seeing salted cod, or baccala, on the menu—it signified authenticity to him—but chose the branzino instead, leaving baccala alla Calabrese to me. Even within this one dish, Vitale managed to satisfy competing expectations. Hunks of cod with potatoes and strong little Calabrese olives were cooked in a gently balanced tomato bouillon. While the dish looked appropriately modest, its taste was elegant. There’s nothing reticent about the branzino that was served ripieno, supplemented—stuffed—with jumbo lump crab imperial, accompanied by lobster-saffron mashed potatoes. This dish was just all-out lavishness and lusciousness, pillowy textures and buttery tastes.
The tasting menu began with an antipasto of seared scallops with citrus beurre blanc and a fritto misto, or “mixed fry” of calamari, salted cod, smelts, and petite Gulf shrimp. Here again was a pleasing mix of plain and fancy. Just enough breading on the delicate fishes to provide snap and flavor, a massive scallop handled precisely, its own juices preserved perfectly inside.
Diners chose between a cold seafood salad and crab-and-shrimp chowder for the second course. The first simply mixed chilled, marinated Gulf shrimp, calamari, octopus, and sea scallops with arugula and mista field greens in a sprightly citrus vinaigrette, a good choice for its palate refreshment. The chowder, on the other hand, lavished the tongue with its generosity of silky crabmeat, sweet corn, and rich sherry flavor. The final course was a holiday dessert trio—a gorgeous panettone bread pudding, homemade tiramisu, and assorted biscotti and chocolate “ornaments.” Among these last were little balls of Belgian chocolate coated in corn flakes, the perfect emblem for a chef and a meal whose guiding thought was to please and delight.
There was a celebrity dining at Aldo’s on this Christmas Eve, a world-famous fashion designer, herself from Calabria, whose opulent lifestyle and appreciation of excess has been merrily lampooned on Saturday Night Live. We were happy that Donatella Versace had found Aldo’s, imagining that she felt both comforted by the cod and delighted by the decadence of crab imperial over sea bass, the crunch of a corn flake over chocolate.