For Italian and Italian-American families worldwide, gathering on Christmas Eve for a feast of fish and seafood — most often seven different varieties but sometimes as many as 13 — is a highlight of the season. For the past five years the folks at the Baldassari Regency in Trenton have shared this beloved tradition with their clientele and the public in a unique and lavish fashion.
For this year’s Festa dei Sette Pesci, to be held on Sunday, December 3, restaurateur Eddie Baldassari and his son, Paul, are bringing in not just seven fishes, but seven high-profile Italian and Italian-American chefs to create a multi-course feast for about 150 guests. Each course features matching Italian wines as well as a non-piscine choice for the fish-adverse or allergic. At last count, the menu includes 11 different fish and shellfish both humble (sardines, salt cod, calamari) and regal (caviar, sea urchin, lobster), all prepared in cutting-edge style. The sardines, for example, will be crusted with fresh mint and served over fennel braised in apple vinegar as part of an antipasto platter.
All the chefs but one hail from the Washington, D.C., area. The lone exception is Kirk Avondoglio, part of the fourth generation owners of Perona Farms in Andover, NJ, who will bring his renowned cured and smoked salmon. (Wolfgang Puck cut Perona Farms’ smoked Atlantic salmon into little Oscar shapes topped with caviar for the 2004 Academy Awards Governor’s Ball.) Importing D.C. chefs for an affair in Trenton is not as strange as it may seem, since Paul Baldassari, heads up the Baldassari Group, a wealth management firm in the nation’s capital. It was inevitable that this scion of a family that has been in the restaurant business in the Chambersburg area of Trenton for more than 50 years would patronize that city’s Italian restaurants and befriend the chefs there.
Three chefs have formed the backbone of the Baldassari event in previous years: Enzo Febbraro, who made a name for himself at Filomena Ristorante after working at three-star Michelin restaurants in Europe and whose new restaurant, D’Acqua, is set to open on Pennsylvania Avenue in January; Cesare Lanfranconi, another three-star alumnus who was at Roberto Donna’s Galileo for five years and whose own illustrious eatery, Restaurant Tosca, was named D.C.’s best new restaurant in 2002 and fine dining restaurant of the year for 2005; and Domenico Cornacchia, who has three restaurants under his belt: Osteria Sette, Sette Bello, and Cafe Milano, which was 2005’s “power spot of the year.”
Cornacchia will be responsible for the five-part antipasto selection, which in addition to the sardines includes a mini souffle of cardoon in a Parma prosciutto sauce. The antipasto will be paired with a wine from the Fruili region that is a blend of chardonnay, ribolla giallo, and other white grapes, one of five Italian wines that will flow that evening.
Other chefs from Washington include Francesco Ricchi of
Etrusco and Cesco, a native of
Florence, Italy (Ricci is also involved with the opening of D’Acqua); Gianluigi Dellaccio, who until recently was pastry chef at Galileo and whose new endeavor is Dolci Gelati; and Enzo Livia of Spezie and Il Pizzico.
The Baldassaris readily admit that despite an all-inclusive price tag of $125 per person they barely break even on the event, which has grown from 50 guests the first year to 150, with many guests returning each year. “It proves to people from outside of Trenton that we’re doing something special,” says Eddie Baldassari, who came to the U.S. from Rome in 1947, when he was just nine. The third of five children born to Adeline and Antonio Baldassari, he had worked in Rome at his uncle’s “salumificio,” where animals were slaughtered and meat products produced.
He has vivid memories of World War II. “I was five years old and in bed when the Germans came to my house looking for ‘prisoners.’ They left the women and children alone but were looking for my father. They asked me, in Italian, where he was. I didn’t tell them that my father and some other men had already gone to a nearby stable, where they were hiding under a mound of hay. But I followed the Germans around and eventually they came to the stable. They poked the hay with pitchforks, but they never found the men.”
The family came to the U.S. because Baldassari’s mother was American. Her parents lived in Trenton just one block from where the Baldassari Regency stands. By the age of 10, Eddie, whose given name is Italo, began working after school as a delivery boy for Barbero’s bakery. Soon he learned to make bread and doughnuts and at 17 he opened his first business, a small luncheonette on North Warren Street. Eventually Baldassari became known for his doughnut shop, Eddie’s Donuts, on Hamilton Avenue, and over the ensuing half century went on to own no fewer than five food businesses, including the popular Baldassari’s Roebling Pub.
These days he leases out all of them except the Regency, where the Seven Fishes dinner is held. Baldassari has stated that he invested $1 million in renovating the property, which includes a ballroom that accommodates 450. Until recently, the Regency had been used strictly for private events but about a month ago it opened its two smaller dining rooms to the dining public. “I’ve been working in this business for 50 years,” says the trim and dapper Baldassari, who says operating the Regency now consumes much of his time. He has no plans to retire.
Baldassari is known in Trenton not only as a prominent business owner, but also for his philanthropy. Beginning at the age of 18, when he helped raise money to defray the medical expenses of a friend who had developed a brain tumor, over the years he has organized or participated in fundraisers for such diverse causes as muscular dystrophy, Deborah Hospital, Italian earthquake victims, Boys Town, and Vietnam Veterans. He is on the board of the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital at Hamilton Foundation, and last month he organized a luncheon for 90 people at the Regency to honor a Trenton police officer, who had been instrumental in working with business owners on Hamilton Avenue to make the neighborhood cleaner and safer. “The message is not yet out there that we are making progress here in Chambersburg. That’s why I did it,” Baldassari says.
He hires and mentors students in the Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Academy at Trenton Central High School. Of a current student-server he says, “Brendan is one of the stars. He learns quickly and has a bubbly personality. He is looking at colleges so I told him that these days it’s not enough to know how to cook, you have to get restaurant management experience. I myself have little schooling. I worked in bakeries as a kid and learned to cook from my older brother, John Paul. He was the finest chef I knew.” Baldassari’s voice still cracks when he mentions that John Paul passed away four years ago.
The Baldassari pere looks forward to the Seven Fishes dinner each year in particular to watch the battery of chefs in action. “A lot of restaurants do wine dinners, but no one does a dinner like this, with five, six, seven chefs producing elegant food. And almost everyone is Italian — the chefs, their helpers, the waiters, and even the busboys. The guests love it.”
From his office in Washington, D.C., Eddie’s son, Paul, offers his own take on the dinner’s popularity. “I sense a hunger for something different in the Trenton area. More people are well-traveled and eating globally. These people are tired of spaghetti and meatballs. Yet I don’t see a lot of food on this level in Mercer County. You have to travel to Philadelphia or New York to encounter the kind of food we do for our Seven Fishes, and you would have to pay $200 per person or more.”
Paul Baldassari, 34, claims he has followed in his father’s footsteps even though he is not directly in the restaurant business. After earning a dual degree in international finance and economics from Catholic University in 1995, he stayed on in the D.C. area. “My dad wanted me to come back to New Jersey,” he says, “but if I had done that I would not be able to contribute to his business in the way I do today. I am a consultant to the restaurant, and we do a lot of real estate and property management. The restaurant business is a hard business.”
The younger Baldassari grew up in Hamilton Township with his father, his mother, Christine, and a sister, Kristin, who lives in Pennington and has two children. “But,” he says, “I also grew up in Rome. Every summer my parents sent me to stay with my dad’s family, and this had a big influence on me. My father’s mother passed away when I was 10, so it was not so much her influence as that of a great-aunt, her sister, through which I developed a love for the Italian culture and for authentic Italian cooking.” He recalls that during those Roman summers there were “no air conditioning and no screens to keep out the bugs. I would wake up in the hot mornings and smell the cooking. I would go to the beach and then come back to help my aunt cook lunch and dinner.”
He met his new bride, Liliana, a native of Colombia with an Italian heritage, in D.C. “We clicked because of the shared culture and because we speak the same languages: English, Italian, and Spanish.”
Paul Baldassari’s greatest pleasure from the Seven Fishes dinner derives, he says, from introducing guests to new ingredients and upscale preparations. “My aunt, for example, my dad’s sister. She initially said ‘eeew’ to raw fish, but then she sent her plate back empty.” Like his father, he enjoys spending time in the kitchen watching the camaraderie among the chefs. “Unlike the fierce competitiveness that seems to be the norm in cities like New York, these chefs are supportive of each other,” he says. Of the three who have been instrumental in the dinner from the start, he says, “Enzo, Domenico, and Cesare do it because they want to support us and they see the challenges in this town. Plus, guests get to meet them here in Trenton and then when they travel to D.C. they patronize their restaurants.”
The meal will end with two sweet courses from Gianluigi Dellacio. His cassata, made with buffalo ricotta and served with caramelized winter fruits and almond biscotti, will be followed by sfogliatelle, those cream-filled pastries fittingly shaped like seashells.
“Seven Chefs, Seven Fish, Six Years,” Sunday, December 3, 5 p.m., the Baldassari Regency, 145 Morris Avenue, Trenton. Reception and dinner, $125, includes open bar, taxes, gratuities, and valet parking. Reservations required. 609-392-1280 or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. The full menu can be viewed by clicking “baldassari cucina italiana” at www.baldassari.com.