Italians observe a symbolic fast on Christmas Eve, so the festive dinner, cena della vigilia (vigil dinner), is a seafood extravaganza, serving courses of fish, including shellfish, eel and baccala (salted cod). American-Italians have upheld this tradition, where it is known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes, featuring strictly seven courses. However, in Italy, there is generally no set number of dishes, and in true Italian style, some households prepare as many as 20 courses. A popular addition is pasta con le sarde, a classic Sicilian dish from Palermo traditionally made using the island’s wild fennel.






Skill level

Average: 3 (116 votes)


  • 200 ml olive oil
  • 60 g (1 cup) fresh breadcrumbs
  • 1 large fennel bulb, finely chopped
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2 tomatoes, finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
  • 8 anchovy fillets
  • large pinch saffron, soaked in 2 tbsp warm water
  • 35 g (¼ cup) raisins
  • 50 g (⅓ cup) pine nuts, toasted
  • 12 fresh sardines, filleted
  • 35 g (¼ cup) plain flour, seasoned
  • 500 g spaghetti
  • ¼ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

Cook's notes

Oven temperatures are for conventional; if using fan-forced (convection), reduce the temperature by 20˚C. | We use Australian tablespoons and cups: 1 teaspoon equals 5 ml; 1 tablespoon equals 20 ml; 1 cup equals 250 ml. | All herbs are fresh (unless specified) and cups are lightly packed. | All vegetables are medium size and peeled, unless specified. | All eggs are 55-60 g, unless specified.


Drink 2011 Rocca di Montemassi Calasole Vermentino, Tuscany, Italy ($15)

Heat 40 ml oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add breadcrumbs and cook, stirring, for 6 minutes or until crisp and golden. Transfer to a bowl, season with salt and pepper and set aside.

Wipe pan clean, then add 80ml oil over medium heat. Add fennel and onion, then cook, stirring, for 13 minutes or until softened and slightly coloured. Add garlic and stir for 2 minutes. Add tomatoes and tomato paste, cook for 5 minutes, then add anchovies and saffron with soaking liquid and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes or until anchovies dissolve. Stir in raisins and pine nuts. Add 80 ml warm water and simmer for 2 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

Heat remaining 80 ml oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Coat sardines in seasoned flour, shaking off excess. Cook in batches, turning halfway, for 3 minutes or until crisp and golden.

Meanwhile, cook pasta in boiling salted water until al dente. Drain, reserving 250 ml water.

Return fennel mixture to heat and gradually add reserved cooking water. Add pasta, stirring to coat in sauce. Transfer to a serving dish and arrange sardines over pasta. To serve, toss breadcrumbs with parsley, and scatter over pasta.


Photography by Chris Chen


As seen in Feast magazine, Dec/Jan 2013, Issue 27. For more recipes and articles, pick up a copy of this month's Feast magazine or check out our great subscriptions offers here.