Photo: Kenneth Chen

It’s funny to think that back in Colonial days, eels were as popular with the locals as three-cornered hats and buckle shoes. Not so today, except among sushiphiles. Eels do have their moment, though, this time of year, when Italian-Americans seek them out for the traditional Christmas Eve dinner known as La Viglia, or Feast of the Seven Fishes—the meatless meal that may be more popular here, among enterprising restaurateurs, than it is in Italy. Felidia’s Fortunato Nicotra, who throws as good a Viglia as anyone, prizes eel for its sweet, rich flavor and uses it in a slew of recipes including the classic below. Eels are available now through Christmas at PE&DD Seafood at the Greenmarket and Citarella stores any way you like—skinned and filleted and ready to throw into the pot, or alive and kicking.

Fortunato Nicotra’s Eel Alla Veneziana
1 large sweet onion, sliced
3 bay leaves
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 lb. fresh eel, cleaned, skinned
Sea salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar
Polenta, prepared

Illustration by John Burgoyne.

In a large nonstick pan, sauté the sliced onion and bay leaves in olive oil for approximately five minutes until the onions color slightly.
(1) Cut the eel into 1-inch pieces and
(2) season with salt and pepper and add it to the pan. Cover and cook for five more minutes, shaking the pan occasionally.
(3) Remove lid, and deglaze the pan with red-wine vinegar, allowing the vinegar to evaporate. Adjust seasoning, and serve over polenta. Yield: 4 appetizer-size portions.