Secrets of The Italian Fish Market
Italian Captain Barbarossa, a.k.a. Orazio Aruta, a 70-something retired fisherman, theatrically pinches the leathery skin of his forearm. “Seawater, not blood, runs from these veins,” he says.
He’s not alone. With some 5,000-miles of coastline, Italy is locked into an everlasting dialogue with the Mediterranean Sea. The azure waters that softly lap onto its shores nourish, protect and inspire the country and symbolize the embracing, expansive and warm nature of its people. Generations of fishermen and seafarers, from Odysseus in ancient times to the Italian Coast Guard (which today monitors the waters between Europe’s southern borders and North Africa), have shaped Italy’s destiny.
Until his recent retirement, excluding a brief stint as a movie extra, Barbarossa (whose nickname “red beard” invokes Mediterranean pirates) spent his whole life at sea, piloting fishing trawlers in extreme weather and “wrestling sharks,” he says. Today, he runs a seafood shack in Fiumicino, Rome’s fishing hub. The shack is decorated with a faded black and white photograph of himself and a portrait of the Madonna.
Barbarossa’s market epitomizes Italy’s seafood philosophy. The operative word is freshness, a theme that runs through the entire commercial lifecycle of seafood, spanning from how it’s caught to how it’s sold and cooked. In restaurants and home kitchens, techniques that lock in freshness, such as light frying, grilling or smoking, are preferred. In its highest expression, Italian seafood, including mollusks, sea urchins, prawns, tuna and swordfish, is served raw. The seafood shack in Fiumicino is packed with crates of shrimp, shellfish, deep-sea fish and other tasty varieties that live closer to the shore. The freshness of Barbarossa’s catch is so immediate, “almost anything here can be eaten raw,” he claims.
Not all markets are as diligent about freshness, or located a stone’s throw from the sea, so it’s in the shopper’s best interest to know what to look for (and this goes for seafood shopping anywhere). First and foremost: If it stinks, it sinks. Under no circumstances should you buy a foul-smelling fish with aromas of ammonia, sulfur, unchanged flower vase water or sweaty gym bag. It is imperative to smell before buying fish. When browsing the catch of the day at your local fishmonger, check the eyes; they should be clear and bright, not dull, cloudy, graying or damaged. Look for firm scales that are metallic in appearance with sharp edges, not slimy, mushy, discolored, scratched, uneven or crinkled in texture. A white or milky film on the scales is also a sign that the fish is too old. The gills are another area that indicates freshness: At the base of the head, gills should be bright pink or red. Avoid fish with graying, browning gills or gluey gills that don’t open naturally.
With bigger cuts of fish (such as swordfish steaks), the thin membrane under the skin should be a lively pink color. Shades of green or blue under the thick outer skin denote oxidation or rot. A healthy fish will be firm, dense and resilient to the touch. If your fingerprint remains indented in the flesh, the fish is no good. At some markets, shoppers can select a fish, lobster, crab, prawn, shrimp or crustacean from a fish tank; just make sure the animal moves with vigor and is not cuddled up motionless in a corner. Octopus is often sold live and should squirm. Similarly, live clams, mussels or oysters should react to the touch; if poked, they should show a slight reflex in the movement of the shell. Discard any shellfish that do not open after being cooked (if they are sealed tight after contact with heat, they were probably dead to begin with).
Because fish is such a fundamental element of the Italian diet, creative chefs have found countless ways of expressing their favorite sea-based ingredients. Indeed, pesce Italiano is one of the world’s most sophisticated and versatile cooking schools. Roasted fish (arrosto) is marinated in olive oil, garlic and herbs and baked in its marinade for extra flavor. Fish can be poached in white wine, water and vinegar, or boiled in acqua pazza (crazy water) with onions, tomato and oregano. Other expressions see fish (sea bream or John Dory) wrapped in foil or paper with olive oil (with a small cube of butter) parsley, tomatoes, garlic and bay leaves. In southern Italy, a whole fish is often covered in rock salt and cooked in the oven. Misto griglia (mixed grill) is another popular option (including grilled squids, prawns and fish), often served over pasta such as in the ubiquitous spaghetti con vongole (clams) or spaghetti allo scoglio (mixed seafood). Fifteen of Italy’s 20 regions border the Mediterranean Sea and the list of regional seafood dishes is limitless.
Italy is a world leader in white wine production and many of the grape varieties are best suited to fresh fish. Pinot Grigio, unoaked Soave, Vermentino or Insolia are excellent wines to pair with fried calamari or pasta with clams because of their freshness and crispness. Structured varieties such as Fiano di Avellino, Friulano and Chardonnay make an excellent match for shellfish, prawns and oven-baked fish.
Now you’re ready to select the freshest fish at any market, consider how best to prepare it and purchase the perfect wine to pair with your catch. Tutti a tavola a mangiare!
Fresh Pasta with Dentice & Almond Cream Sauce
This easy and traditional recipe is offered by Nino Chirco, who runs I Bucanieri restaurant (ristoranteibucanieri.it), facing the port of Marsala in Sicily. Powdered almonds are often used in southern Italy as a means of thickening fish stock; they also add delicate touches of creaminess and sweetness to a dish. Nino suggests using busiate pasta, a long, twisted Sicilian egg-free noodle. The dentice (Mediterranean bream) can be replaced with ricciola (amberjack) or any other delicate white fish such as red snapper. The dish can also be made with fresh shrimp.
12 ounces dentice (or substitute with ocean perch or red mullet) cleaned and scaled
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
20 cherry tomatoes, halved, very ripe and sweet
14 ounces busiate or fresh fusilli lunghi (twisted spaghetti)
¼ cup almond powder (called almond
meal or flour in U.S. markets)
Salt to taste
Chopped parsley for garnish
Fillet the fish and use the discarded pieces to make a small fish broth in a pan with water. Sauté the fish fillets in olive oil in a thick skillet over a medium flame. Once the fish is cooked through, add the halved tomatoes and cook for only a few minutes. The tomatoes should soften but not become mushy. Cook the pasta, drain and set aside. Use fish broth to thin the fish and tomato mixture. Sprinkle the almond powder over the fish and tomatoes, stir lightly until a creamy sauce is formed. Add the pasta to the skillet and cook together for about one minute. Sprinkle with chopped parsley before serving. Serves four.
Wine Recommendations: Chirco recommends Donnafugata’s Chiarandà (a 50-50 blend of Chardonnay and Ansonica) to pair with this dish. He says the richness of the Chardonnay marries with the texture of the almond cream, and the Ansonica (a native Sicilian grape variety) has the freshness and delicate aromas to highlight the tender seafood nuances.
Fresh Tunaballs in Tomato Sauce
Made with freshly ground tuna meat, these tasty tunaballs are a specialty of southern Italy, where tuna is part of the fresh catch of the day. Tunaballs in tomato sauce are served as a second course instead of a meat dish.
For the Tunaballs
12 ounces of fresh tuna, put through a meat grinder (or pulsed in a food processor until finely minced)
4 ounces bread crumbs or fresh bread, cut into tiny pieces
1 tablespoon white cooking wine
Dave’s Memphis Wet Ribs
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups olive oil for frying
For the Tomato Sauce
1 small chopped onion
1 garlic clove
6 large red Roma tomatoes, peeled in boiling water and crushed
4 bay leaves
Chopped parsley for garnish
Prepare the Tunaballs and Tomato Sauce: In a bowl, mix the ground tuna, bread crumbs, egg, white wine, salt and pepper until completely blended. Form small golf-ball-sized tunaballs, fry in olive oil, making sure they are covered in oil, and cook for about three minutes.
For the Sauce
Sauté the onion and garlic until transparent. Add the crushed tomatoes and bay leaves and cook for about 20 minutes until the sauce thickens.
Finish the Dish: Add the tunaballs to the sauce and cook together for 10 minutes. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve hot. Serves four.'
Wine Recommendations: A structured white wine, such as an oak-aged Chardonnay, Fiano or Trebbiano would be successful with this dish. Another option is a rosé wine, such as L’Astore Masseria Rosé from the Salento region of Puglia, made from Negroamaro grapes.
Risotto alla Crema di Scampi
Versions of this delicious recipe are served in restaurants across Italy, but especially in central and southern regions. Short grain (Arborio) rice is cooked in shrimp broth with cream and a touch of tomato sauce to achieve a pretty pink color. Opulent in texture and taste, this risotto dish would pair with a structured white wine (oak-aged), rosé, or Pinot Noir from northern Italy. An excellent wine to pair with this dish is Lis Neris Lis from Venezia Giulia (a blend of Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Sauvignon).
1 small onion, whole
1 celery stick
10–15 large shrimp (with heads)
14 ounces Arborio rice
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 cup fresh tomato sauce (or 2 tablespoons tomato paste)
1 cup white wine (or ¼ cup Brandy)
½ cup heavy cream
Salt to taste
Chopped parsley for garnish
Fill a large pot with water and add the onion, carrot and celery. Bring to a boil and cook for 30 minutes. Add the shrimps and boil for 10 more minutes. Drain the broth and set aside. Remove the shrimp, peel off the skins, cut off the heads, then chop the shrimp meat into small cubes. Set aside heads for decorating each serving of risotto at the end.
In a large skillet, fry the onion until transparent. Add the rice and fry for a few minutes before adding the wine and chopped shrimp meat. Stirring constantly, add the shrimp broth, cup by cup, as the rice cooks and expands. Continue stirring and adding broth for about 20 minutes or until the rice is al dente. Add the tomato sauce about ten minutes before the rice is done so that it cooks evenly. Add the cream towards the very end. The finished risotto should be creamy. Garnish with parsley and shrimp heads. Serves four.
Italian Fish Dictionary
Have you ever been stumped by a menu item at an Italian restaurant or seafood market? Here are the terms you need to know to get the fish you want.
Acciughe: Canned anchovies
Alici: Anchovies, usually in fillets
Aragosta: Spiny lobster
Astici: European or common lobster
Baccalà: Cured codfish braised or fried
Branzino: Sea bass
Coda di Rospo: Anglerfish or monkfish
Dentice: Sea bream or dentex
Frutti di Mare: Mixed seafood, squid, mussels and shrimp
Gambero or gamberetti: Mediterranean prawn (large shrimp)
Mazzancolle: Large prawn
Moscardini: Baby squid
Orata: Mediterranean Sea bream
Pesce San Pietro: John Dory
Pesce Spada: Swordfish
Ricci: Sea urchin roe
Scampi: Mediterranean prawns or langoustines served roasted or grilled
Seppia: Cuttlefish (the fish itself or its black ink)
Spigola: Sea bass or grouper
Triglie: Red mullet