“Feast of the Seven Fishes” blends memoir, recipes and neighborhood history
BENSONHURST — Bensonhurst-born home cook, photographer and graphic designer Daniel Paterna is dishing up more than mouthwatering recipes in his new cookbook, “Feast of the Seven Fishes: A Brooklyn Italian’s Recipes Celebrating Food & Family.” Through lovingly rendered photographs, readers also get a taste of the neighborhood’s little Italian bakeries, butcher shops and corner stores, alongside a highly personal family memoir.
The Bensonhurst backdrop gives rich context to recipes for dishes like arancini, eggplant parmesan and Paterna’s favorite, torta dolce di ricotta, a traditional Italian cheesecake made with ricotta instead of cream cheese.
“I think anyone that has it is kind of over the moon,” said Paterna. “You can’t not like it.”
Paterna began to think about the food and the culture of Bensonhurst as something to be preserved after a few years away in Boston in the ‘90s. When he went home, he wanted to document his family’s Italian traditions like the Feast of the Seven Fishes, a meal with seven different seafood dishes customarily served on Christmas Eve.
“When I would go home for holidays, I started to photograph my mom cooking,” Paterna said. “During that time, I would reflect on, wow, this is a very unique thing that we do every year.”
Paterna also started visiting Bensonhurst’s “negozi,” or little Italian shops, many of which have been run by the same families for generations, to photograph and interview the proprietors.
Nearly eight years later, those efforts are compiled in “Feast of the Seven Fishes,” out from PowerHouse Books Nov. 5. The book is filled with authentic recipes, interviews, family snapshots and stunning original photographs by Paterna, almost entirely shot on Kodak 400 ASA.
“I was committed to shoot everything on film,” Paterna said. “I felt that the work I was presenting and the concepts, the emotions I was evoking were all taking place in the film era.”
Paterna’s grandfather left Naples and settled in Red Hook around 1915, right at the tail end of a massive wave of immigration that brought roughly two million Italian immigrants to the city. Like many of the grandchildren of those immigrants, who came mostly from southern Italy, Paterna grew up in Bensonhurst, known for its Italian shops and restaurants and for its annual street fair honoring Santa Rosalia, the patron saint of Palermo.
When Paterna was growing up, the neighborhood was also known for its mob presence, and for outbursts of racial violence and bigotry. One of the goals for the book that Paterna had from the outset was to portray Bensonhurst’s “B-Side,” the side of the middle class, Italian-American neighborhood that defies stereotypes.
Outside of Brooklyn, Paterna says he encountered those stereotypes often. People would ask if he knew anybody in the Mafia. Coworkers found his Brooklyn accent intimidating, and one even suggested speech therapy.
“I always felt like we grew up in a very dignified house,” said Paterna. “My mother abhorred ‘The Sopranos.’ There’s no identification, no glorification in that. And I think that’s because it was all too real for us… you step out in the street, you could run numbers or be part of an organized crime outfit very easily, so for us it was taken seriously.”
Paterna’s mother, who died in 2013, sang in the choir at church and was a seamstress and a bank teller. She spoke Italian and would help new immigrants to set up bank accounts, apply for mortgages and, in general, establish themselves in the neighborhood.
Her reputation in the community helped Paterna as he was visiting shops in Bensonhurst to photograph and interview the sometimes-reluctant owners. It also came in handy after he finished the book. Hoping for a positive blurb, he mailed an advance copy to Michael Lomonaco, the former Food Network host and chef at Windows on the World.
Unbeknownst to Paterna, before Lomonaco was a well-known chef, he had worked at a bank with Paterna’s mother.
“He said, ‘Had I not seen the word ‘Paterna’ on that FedEx, I would have never opened it,’” Paterna said. “I really feel like my mom had a direct hand.”
Lomonaco read the book and wrote a glowing preface. In part, he wrote, “This deeply personal book is meant to move you, to help you understand the story of one family, and to see that so many other families lived much like this.”
Paterna says the book is a way to preserve not just his own family’s traditions, but the traditions of a changing neighborhood.
“Me photographing these stores and the area was sort of like a way to hold onto what’s left,” Paterna said. “I think that’s what people are reacting to when they see the book.”