Italian Village’s annual Christmas Eve prix fixe Feast of the Seven Fishes is steeped in love and the traditions of the downtown restaurant founder Alfredo Capitanini’s relatives.
“It started with my grandfather, who brought it back from Italy,” said third-generation proprietor Gina Capitanini. “It was a family tradition on Christmas Eve [that] you don’t eat meat, you eat seafood.”
Hoping to make his way to California after leaving Italy, Capitanini’s grandfather stopped in Chicago and started working as a dishwasher. Soon, he was promoted to a cook. Then, several years after, he ended up running and buying the restaurant.
“And the rest is history,” Capitanini said of the soon-to-be 93-year-old restaurant, now officially known as The Village.
“This place has been able to maintain its level of service, food — the passion behind the family is one of the driving points of this place still being open,” added The Village Chef Jose Torres.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes is thought to have its origins based in the Catholic liturgical calendar’s days of abstinence, when believers abstain from eating meat or dairy. Usually, there are seven different types of seafood or seven different courses, or 12 courses served in honor of the 12 apostles. The quantity of seven is speculated to have origins based on either the seven sacraments, the seven virtues or the seven days of creation written about in the Bible.
The four-course Feast of the Seven Fishes menu included chilled cocktail Gulf shrimp, calamari stuffed with seasoned ricotta cheese, lobster bisque and a choice of Linguine con Vongole [linguine with whole Manila clams in a white or red sauce] or Coregone di Silvaggio [baked oreganata breaded Lake Superior whitefish with mushrooms]. The meal ended with cannoli or lemon ice.
Versions of offerings in the Feast of the Seven Fishes are available on the regular year-round menu.
Favorites include the “can’t go wrong” lasagna [the white cream sauce recipe doesn’t include the usual ricotta cheese], chicken parmesan and meatballs that sell by the hundreds daily.
A family favorite is the original recipe Rigatoni di Franco, which includes ground chicken thigh meat, cherry tomatoes, basil and tomato sauce.
In addition to The Village, the iconic building, at 71 W. Monroe St., also houses Capitanini’s two other restaurants, La Cantina and Vivere.
The Village, the star and original icon, pulls in locals and tourists with its original decor and artwork replicating a small charming Italian town. Many stop by as part of their family’s holiday tradition. Some grab a bite to eat before heading to theater, and others stroll in just to say “hi” to beloved bartender “Vince the Prince.” Part of Vince Masini’s charm is his “lack of a filter,” Capitanini admits with a smile.
Capitanini is grooming her daughter Giovanna Capitanini to take on the Italian Village Restaurants.
“A lot of the employees have known me since I’ve been a baby,” said Giovanna Capitanini, who currently works as the company’s digital and social media marketing manager.
Gina Capitanini, meanwhile, thinks her late father would’ve never believed that she’d be the last remaining sibling in the business.
“It’s really nice to hear people say, ‘I’m so glad that you didn’t close. I’m so glad that you’re here. It’s our family tradition. I was here for prom, I was here for homecoming. I brought my children here and now they’re bringing their children here.’ And to me that’s what it’s all about,” Gina Capitanini said.
The Italian Village Restaurants are located at 71 W. Monroe St., Chicago. Call (312) 332.7005 or visit www.italianvillage-chicago.com Except for Christmas Day, the restaurants are open seven days a week for lunch and dinner.