At Seattle's Tulio Ristorante, chef Walter Pisano follows family tradition by offering dishes from the Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes.

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THE WAY PEOPLE commemorate the holidays says a lot about who they are. And for southern Italians and Americans of Italian ancestry who celebrate Christmas Eve with a multicourse, seafood-centric meal called Feast of the Seven Fishes, I say simply, “Hip, hip, hurray.”

The feast tradition springs from the observance of La Vigilia Di Natale — “the vigil,” when Catholics wait for the birth of Christ. Early Catholics fasted on Christmas Eve until they received communion at midnight Mass. In later years, Christmas Eve became a penitential day. Meat was verboten, so seafood stepped in.

The number of seafood dishes varied. Some families celebrated with three, which supposedly represented the three wise men or the Holy Trinity. In southern Italy and Sicily, where seafood was abundant, seven dishes were prepared, symbolizing everything from the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church to the seven deadly sins.

Inspired by his own family’s traditions, Walter Pisano, executive chef of Tulio Ristorante in downtown Seattle, has long filled his Christmas Eve menu with dishes such as Salt Cod (Baccala) Stew with Sweet Peppers and Olives, Crab Ravioli with Winter Herbs and Sweet Butter, and Whole Roasted Mediterranean Sea Bass with Roasted Fingerling Potatoes and Holiday Meyer Lemon Jam.

“For my Dad, it was always about the food,” Pisano says. His father, John Tulio Pisano, a.k.a. “Johnny” or “J.P.,” grew up in Brooklyn, the son of southern-Italian immigrants, and worked in high-end restaurants and supper clubs in New York City throughout his life. Wife Flora was Scottish. So shortly after the couple married, Walter’s aunts got together to teach her how to make the family’s favorite feast dishes.

In the Italian neighborhood near Asbury Park, N.J., where young Walter and his brother grew up, “We started eating at 1 p.m., and the meal was served family-style. We’d eat, then open gifts for a while, then eat some more. People dropped in and out. It was ongoing.”

Johnny and Flora have passed on, so nowadays the Pisano family — Walter, wife Deborah, 9-year-old Audrey and 2 ½-year-old Giovanni — celebrates with Deborah’s family in Puyallup. Their modern-day feast might include steamed lobsters, crab pasta, prawn dishes and even — in a nod to Deborah’s German-Irish heritage — a standing rib roast.

For dessert, Deborah’s mother, Kitty McGuane, bakes pecan rolls, while Walter whips up a bread pudding or French toast using panettone, the traditional Italian sweet bread.

“I love working with seafood,” Walter says. “And I used to make the Feast of the Seven Fishes dishes for my Dad. I take my family’s traditional dishes and tweak them.”

Braiden Rex-Johnson is the author of “Pacific Northwest Wining & Dining.” Visit her blog at Ken Lambert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

Vongole Ripieni

(Baked Stuffed Clams with Toasted Parmesan Bread Crumbs)

Serves 6

This recipe is a simplified version, for home cooks, of one of the Feast of the Seven Fishes recipes chef Walter Pisano cooks at Tulio Ristorante.

½ cup virgin olive oil, divided

6 medium garlic cloves, divided

36 Manila clams (about 1 ½ pounds), shells scrubbed and rinsed

1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

¼ cup dry white wine

Juice of 1 lemon

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter

3 cups unseasoned soft (fresh) bread crumbs (See Note, below)

½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

½ cup minced fresh flat-leaf parsley

¼ cup snipped fresh chives

1 tablespoon minced fresh marjoram or oregano (or 1 ½ teaspoons dried marjoram or oregano, crumbled)

1. Preheat the broiler and arrange the broiler rack 4 inches from the heat source. Cover a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil. Place a sieve over a large bowl.

2. For the clams, heat ¼ cup of the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. While the oil is heating, thinly slice 2 of the garlic cloves. When the oil is hot, add the sliced garlic, clams and red pepper flakes to the pan. Cook, stirring constantly, for 30 seconds, then add the wine and lemon juice.

3. Cover and cook, occasionally shaking the pot back and forth across the burner to redistribute the clams, until they begin to open, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir well, cover and cook until all the clams open, 1 to 2 minutes more. Pour the clams and juice into the sieve.

4. When the clams are cool enough to handle, loosen the clam flesh (but keep the clams in their shells) and arrange the clams over the prepared baking sheet. Discard the juice or strain and save it for another use.

5. In a large, heavy-bottomed skillet heat the butter with the remaining ¼ cup of olive oil over medium heat. Thinly slice the remaining 4 garlic cloves, add to the skillet and cook, stirring occasionally, until pale golden in color, 3 to 4 minutes. Carefully add the bread crumbs (which may bubble up) and cook, stirring constantly until the bread crumbs reduce and turn golden, 3 to 4 minutes. Turn the heat off and add the Parmesan, parsley, chives and marjoram. Stir until the herbs and cheese are completely incorporated.

6. Press a heaping teaspoon of bread crumbs into each clam shell until completely covered.

7. Broil until the crumbs turn crisp and golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer the clams to a large platter and serve immediately.

Note: To make fresh bread crumbs, tear slices of white or whole-wheat bread into chunks, place them in a food processor and pulse until crumbs of the desired size form.