As evidenced by the chill in the air, in San Francisco our holiday season is now in full swing. North Beach is resplendent as ever in the wintry light, our church towers and Italianate architecture seemingly intended for this time of year. I’ll be spending the holidays in town this year–and I must say, I’m happy about it.

In terms of plans, there are two imperatives: see friends, and eat well. I grew up in a big Italian family, and while eating was always top of mind, during the holidays the emphasis on food got very serious. The kitchen became the center of activity in December, and there was always a great deal of baking going on–and virtually unlimited access to cookies. The climax was Christmas Eve, when my family always threw a huge party for ‘La Vigilia’.

Also known as the Feast of The Seven Fishes, this was a traditional Italian meal prepared the night before Christmas. The tradition commemorates the Vigilia di Natale, the wait for the birth of the baby Jesus. We never really talked about that part, though. We knew what it meant to us: Time To Eat.

The bustling dining room at Sotto Mare, holiday style. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Though I was never quite clear on which seven fishes to expect, there were a few things we grew accustomed to. There would be always be sautéed calamari and trays of smelts, finger-length whole fish that are breaded and fried. There would be freshly baked oyster “dressing” (it was more of a stuffing, really), and plenty of spaghetti with white clam sauce. Lasagna, manicotti, linguine. And because rules are no fun, there was also plenty of meatballs and sausage and peppers.

For three days, both my mother and grandmother (my father’s mother, born in Calabria) would toil in their respective kitchens. On the night of the big event, my aunts and uncles would show up one after another bearing armfuls of additional food and drink. And it wasn’t just family–everyone came to this feast. We’d literally have hundreds of people every year. There was nothing like La Vigilia, and I’ll never forget those parties.

The seafood linguine at Sotto Mare. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

One gets nostalgic this time of year, and happily there’s a place in San Francisco where I can get my holiday La Vigilia fix: North Beach’s very own Sotto Mare. For me, the experience starts the moment I walk in the door. Remember, this is an Italian seafood house: I just close my eyes and inhale, and I’m back in my grandmother’s kitchen on Christmas Eve.

Of course, then there’s the food. Sotto Mare has always had the freshest shellfish anywhere (we never saw prawns like these back in the day. Sorry, Grandma). They even serve a luscious Italian-style baccala, Benita’s style, a family recipe not to be missed. Salmon, sand dabs, Petrale sole….it’s always a feast of the fishes at this place.

They say you get your food habits not from your parents, but from your grandparents. I’ve found this to be true, and I still associate this time of year with my grandmother. She always kept me properly fed, and for good or for naught, taught me that food was a form of love. She has been gone for a very long time, of course. But if Angeline was here with me today, I think the first place I’d take her is Sotto Mare.

Happy Holidays everyone, and see you in the neighborhood!


Sotto Mare
552 Green Street
San Francisco, CA
(415) 398-3181