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December 22, 2015

Meet Mamma, the Italian chef behind East Passyunk's Seven Fishes dinner

Restaurants Food
121815_Mamma_Carroll.jpg Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Maria di Marco, commonly known as "Mamma," in the dining room of her East Passyunk restaurant.

Just call her "Mamma."

Two M's, pronounced with a sharp inflection on the first "ma." She's a life force on East Passyunk Avenue, as well as a trailblazer: She opened her 1637 E. Passyunk Ave. restaurant, Mamma Maria Ristorante, in 1992 with her husband well before the avenue raked in dining accolades year after year.

But what she's most famous for this time of year is her version of the Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes, which consists of baccala (codfish), smelts, calamari, salmon, flounder, clams and -- deep breaths -- shrimp, all served at once. The dinner differs from other local offerings, she said, because she prepares portions of all seven fishes for each person and fills out the experience by offering six additional courses and complimentary red and white wine.

The first three of the aforementioned fish, she explained, are also the must-have and never-changing of the bunch -- you won't find a Seven Fishes meal at Mamma Maria Ristorante, or in Italy, without them. Though, she's swapped eel in and out with the remaining fishes as demand changes. 

"I go with the flow," she told PhillyVoice through her authentic Italian accent.

"Mamma," real name Maria di Marco, carried the Feast of the Seven Fishes tradition with her from Italy. For her and many other religious Italians, it celebrates a combination of "sevens," ranging from the creation of the Earth in seven days, to the seven sacraments, to the seven deadly sins. 

Still, for her, it's more about the tradition of family.

"I'll never forget my mama making the dinner," Mamma said, recalling a long table filled with fish and white wine she once sat at in Abruzzo with her family of eight. "I do this every year to remember my mom and dad, to remember my culture."

Mamma, 68, first left Italy in 1966 with her husband, then a maitre d' in Rome, to open a restaurant in Canada. She then briefly moved back to Italy for a year, launched another restaurant and moved to the United States in 1992 to reunite with siblings and cousins. Soon after, she opened the East Passyunk restaurant and has served the Seven Fishes dinner there every year since.

She noted that upon arriving to the area in the '90s, it felt important to preserve Italian culture, which is why she began serving the dinner. She was stunned, she said, when she first arrived in Philadelphia and asked for directions to Little Italy, only to be pointed to the Italian Market. ("It's a mercado!" she quipped.)

“That’s why I put so much work in the restaurant, because the people come and they tell me, ‘Oh my God it looks like when my grandma was here!’" she said. "I try to give to them what they lost, practically.”

She doubled down on her preservation efforts by teaching cooking classes upstairs at her restaurant and hosting a WYBE cooking show from 1999 to 2007. She stopped taping the show after her husband died, though she mentioned she's currently looking for sponsors to relaunch it.

For now, the Seven Fishes tradition is a pleasant reminder of the unifying powers that come with good food.

"The one thing that will keep your family together is food," she said. 

"Remember those words," she added for emphasis. "You can keep your family together with your food."

Mamma will host her Christmas Eve Seven Fishes Dinner on Dec. 24 in three waves, all scheduled before midnight Christmas Eve Mass, at 3 p.m., 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. The seven-course meal costs $65.

Christmas Eve Seven Fishes Dinner

Antipasto di Pesce

Shrimp, octopus, squid, clams, mussels and olives seasoned with olive oil and fresh lemon, served cold

Zuppa di Castagne

Mamma's delicious signature chestnut soup

Fettuccine alle Vongole

Homemade fettuccine served in a blush seafood sauce

Christmas Eve Seven Fishes

Baccala: Codfish salad tossed with olive oil, onion and celery

Salmone: Salmon oven-baked topped with pesto

Calamari: Stuffed squid oven-roasted with a fresh marinara sauce

Sogliola: Flounder dipped in egg batter and sauteed with fresh lemon

Merluzzo: Smelts dredged in flour and fried in olive oil

Conchiglia: Large clam stuffed with seafood, potato puree and cheese

Gamberi: Shrimp delicately broiled with "Mamma's seasonings"


String beans and potatoes sauteed with garlic and olive oil. Italian mixed salad tossed with red wine vinaigrette 


Your choice of dessert displayed on our mouthwatering dessert cart, including Mamma's homemade Caginetti


Unlimited cappuccino, espresso, coffee or tea