The Spicy Seafood Pasta My Family Makes Every Christmas Eve

Tender lobster in a hearty tomato sauce with kick.

December 17, 2018
Photo by Rocky Luten

We've partnered with Muir Glen to celebrate the season with recipes, tips, and videos that make holiday entertaining easy, elegant, and totally stress-free. Here, food writer and recipe tester Anna Francese Gass shares the story behind her family's Christmas Eve tradition, making lobster fra diavolo.

Hands down, the biggest holiday of the year for my family is Christmas Eve, or La Vigilia, as we Italians call it. Everyone still gets together and goes to church on Christmas Day, but really, it’s more of a day to recover from the huge feast from the night before; in Italy it’s called il cenone, “the big dinner,” and that’s a very accurate description.

My family is from Calabria, the toe of the boot, where the Christmas Eve feast is full of merriment, but the traditions are taken seriously and fiercely observed. Back in Italy, my nonna would always hand-make pasta and fry up battered smelts and baccalà (salted cod)—fish, not meat, because as Catholics, we abstain the night before Christmas.

Photo by Rocky Luten

Here in the United States, many Italian-Americans hold fast to this tradition of eating seafood on Christmas Eve, with a meal appropriately called The Feast of the Seven Fishes. My family is originally from high in the Apennine mountains, where fish was not always in ample supply, but today we always take advantage of our access to fresh, local seafood. My mother still makes a side of smelts on occasion—not exactly the kids’ favorite—plus a small dish of baccalà (she says it just isn’t Christmas otherwise); she supplements our nonna’s traditions with some of her own, like a fritto misto (fried sea scallops, calamari, and shrimp).

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But before we ever get to the fish (il secondo), we always start with a big plate of homemade pasta (il primo), and not just topped with a simple sauce. Instead, my mom makes a spicy tomato sauce chock-full of lobster, called lobster fra diavolo (which translates to "brother devil"), to honor the fish tradition and celebrate the holidays with a decadent version of more typical fare.

First, we buy succulent Maine lobster, which we are lucky enough to have access to here in Connecticut. They’re quickly boiled and cleaned, and the shells are then simmered to make a stock, which boosts the flavor of the finished sauce. Then, organic, whole, peeled tomatoes are added for their rich flavor and texture, and Calabrian chile is sprinkled in for a spicy nod to the old country.

For me and mine, the big feast for La Vigilia is always what we look forward to the most each Christmas season. Full of tradition and stories from years past (and spicy lobster pasta, of course), it's our chance to sit together and eat all our favorite dishes that represent our heritage.

Here are a few tips to make your own lobster fra diavolo perfect:

  • Spice it up. Like a good Calabrese, I put Calabrian chiles in everything, and they’re especially good in this dish. On top of packing a nice heat punch, they add a complex smokiness to the sauce; in a pinch, you can substitute crushed red pepper flakes.
  • Make sure not to overcook the lobster! Be careful not to overdo it both when boiling (no more than seven to eight minutes) and again when finishing the dish. You just want to heat the lobster through at the end, so two minutes in the sauce is plenty.
  • Think beyond lobster. To turn the lobster fra diavolo into seafood fra diavolo, sometimes my mom will throw in a handful of shrimp and/or baby scallops if she has them on hand from her fritto misto—can’t get mad about that! Just add the raw seafood to the sauce about six minutes before it’s done, and the shrimp and scallops will poach up perfectly.
  • Make that stock! It’s very easy to pick up seafood broth at the store, yes, but this homemade stock is liquid gold. Plus, you’ll already have everything you need to make it, so why not put those shells to good use? And you can keep leftover lobster stock in the freezer as a base for chowders and gumbos all winter long.

In partnership with Muir Glen—makers of premium, organic tomato products grown in California's Sacramento Valley, aka our go-to canned tomatoes—we're excited to share all the ways we holiday. From make-ahead appetizers to dinner table show-stoppers, you can look forward to party-ready recipes that are even easier (and tastier!) when you bring a few cans of Muir Glen tomatoes into the mix.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • nubia s zazzini
    nubia s zazzini
  • Anna Francese Gass
    Anna Francese Gass
Cookbook Author. Heirloom Kitchen.Food52 contributing editor & Recipe Tester.


nubia S. December 17, 2018
Looks wonderful! Merry Christmas
Author Comment
Anna F. December 18, 2018
You too Nubia! xx