A legendary restaurateur shares his holiday traditions
Nicola Civetta prepares oysters for the Champagne toast.
Photo by Jeff McNamara
The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a popular Italian-American Christmas tradition. Back in Castelvetere in Val Fortore, where Nicola Civetta was born, they did not use the term “Seven Fishes,” but there was always plenty of seafood for La Vigilia, the Christmas Eve celebration. Civetta, who was trained as a chef, came to New York in 1974 to open Régine’s with its legendary owner. While Régine encouraged Civetta to travel to her various clubs in Paris and Rio, the chef had married a beautiful American fashion model, Peggy Neumann, and they wanted to settle down.
“As soon as we got married, we decided we wanted our own restaurant,” says Peggy. By 1978, the newlyweds had opened Primavera at First Avenue and 81st Street. Nicola’s following from Régine’s drew a steady stream of high profile diners. Before long, Primavera was hosting not only glittering clientele like the Rolling Stones, Grace Kelly, and Jackie O, but also major heads of state.
While running a successful Manhattan eatery required hands-on dedication, the Civettas also managed to raise a family nearby at Gracie Square. After work, Peggy would return home to cook for the children and later to teach daughter Cristina to bake heavenly desserts. Nicola would often stay at the restaurant until well past midnight.
So, to get quality time with her papa, Cristina, who now lives in Pound Ridge with her love, Ed Scheetz, would have a date night once a week with Nicola at Primavera. “We’d eat at the front table before he got busy,” she says. “I would tell him about school and ballet or whatever I was doing, and he would introduce me to the customers. And, of course, we ate. My favorite was the pasta con vongole.”
There were very few days when Primavera closed, but Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were sacred to the Civettas. In the early years, Nicola and Peggy did all the holiday cooking at home, but by the time Cristina was 15, she was pitching in, too.
“They taught me to cook when I was growing up, but now that Ed and I have our own place, I wanted them to give me a little more guidance, so I can do this myself,” says Cristina.
So, Peggy and Nicola, who closed Primavera in 2010, traveled from Tuscany where they own a small borga to help Cristina and Ed prepare their Christmas feast in Pound Ridge. While Seven Fishes traditions vary in terms of how many and which dishes are prepared, one specialty that is invariably on the menu is baccalà (salted cod fish), and Nicola’s is delicate and bite-sized and served as an aperitivo by the roaring fire in the living room.
The baccalà is followed by an antipasto of oysters, prepared with shallots, champagne, a dollop of sauce, and a sprinkling of caviar on top, which Nicola presents in the sunroom, accompanied by a bottle of bubbly from Ed’s wine cellar.
Cristina and Peggy, who have set the table with heirloom dishes and seasonal greens, encourage everyone to join them in the dining room for the third course. “Lobster is a bit extravagant,” explains Nicola. Getting lobster in Italy is difficult, but here it’s easy, so we’re having a nice salad of apples, endive, and Cristina and I made a sauce with a little tomato, then a touch of fresh mayonnaise with thyme, and we mixed it together with the lobster. It’s a pretty dish.”
Next, he presents the salmon marinato—a Primavera specialty that features Norwegian salmon sliced thin and marinated with lemon, oil, white wine, peppercorns, sage, and rosemary plus a side of pasta taglioni with crab and champagne sauce. For this course, Ed chooses a bottle of Gavi di Gavi to complement the salmon.
While the guests take a break to digest, Nicola and Cristina slip in to the kitchen to prepare the capolavoro—or masterpiece. This is a special Christmas dish that includes shrimp, clams, mussels, tomato, and saffron risotto.
While the ingredients have been cooking separately all day, they are combined right before eating, and Cristina delivers the platter to the dining room to a round of applause.
An Italian feast takes hours—there’s always an excess of food and wine and just the right amount of laughter, and no one is in a rush to leave the table. Hours later, Peggy serves her homemade cookies and cakes, a final toast is raised—a pomegranate seed is dropped in each flute for prosperity, and gifts are shared.