Italy, being a rather slender peninsula, is a country where the sea is rarely too far away. And, of course, the products of the sea play a major role in its cuisine. And so it is not surprising that zuppa di pesce, or fish soup, is a dish that you will find almost everywhere in many guises. In Tuscany they call their version of it cacciucco, and on the Adriatic coast, they call it brodetto, or ‘little broth’, and you will find variations of it from Venice all the way down to Abruzzo. (Further down the coast in Puglia, the name reverts to zuppa di pesce.) Although called a soup, it is actually more like a stew.
Zuppa di pesce is said that have been invented by fisherfolk, who in the days before refrigeration needed a convenient way to prepare all the unsold bits and pieces of their daily catch. So why not throw them all together in a pot to simmer with some aromatics and water or, if you could afford, white wine? When the tomato became a central part of Italian cooking, especially in the south, many local variations of fish soup turned various shades of red.
The Neapolitan zuppa di pesce is perhaps the simplest and purest of all the fish soups in Italian cookery it is nothing more than a variety of seafood simmered briefly in a simple marinara sauce. But don’t let the simplicity fool you—the taste of this dish is incredible.
- 2-3 cloves of garlic
- 1 peperoncino (or a pinch of red pepper flakes)
- Olive oil
- A can of best quality San Marzano tomatoes
- Salt and pepper
- A splash of white wine
For the seafood (in the order they should be added to the pot):
- An assortment of mollusks, such as squid, baby cuttlefish or octopus, cut into bite-sized pieces
- An assortment of firm-fleshed fish of your choice, such as monkfish cut into large chunks
- Shrimp, crayfish and/or sea scallops
- Clams and/or mussels
Begin by sautéing a few slightly crushed garlic cloves in abundant olive oil. If you like, you can add a bit of peperoncino to sauté in the olive oil along with the garlic. When the garlic begins to give off its aroma and is just barely beginning to brown, you add tomato—ideally, the pulp of fresh, perfectly ripe San Marzano tomatoes, but otherwise use best quality canned tomatoes that you have run through the largest holes of a food mill. Season with salt and pepper (going light on the salt since the shellfish will be salty) and finely chopped parsley, then allow the tomatoes to simmer for about 10 minutes or so, or until they begin to reduce and reach a saucy consistency. Then add a splash of white wine.
It is now time to add your seafood, starting with the varieties that take the longest to cook, then progressively adding those that take less time. The origins of the fish soup being what they are, the choice of seafood is pretty loose. But the Neapolitan version will almost always include one or more kinds of mollusks such as squid, baby cuttlefish or octopus, clams or mussels or both, and a variety fish with fins. The fish was, as mentioned, the local catch, so many local varieties of fish, most of them small and some quite bony but flavorful, can be thrown into the pot. Larger fish can be cut into serving or even bite-sized pieces. The most typical fish of all is scorfano, called ‘scorpion fish’ in English. (Scorfano is also typical of the Tuscan cacciucco and some of the Adriatic brodetti.) Triglie—red mullet—is also a common addition. But any firm-fleshed fish that lends itself to simmering will do: monkfish, snapper, catfish, sole. Last night I added some cut up halibut, and it was very nice. Although less typical of this kind of fish soup, sea scallops and shellfish are make nice additions. The more variety, the better the soup they say.
You always begin with the mollusks, since they will take some time to cook. With very young calamaretti (baby cuttlefish) let them simmer about 10 minutes before you add any other fish. Octopus or mature squid (which you should cut up into bite-sized pieces) will take much longer, usually about 30 minutes, although you can sometimes find pre-cooked octopus that only needs heating up. Then add you fish and let that cook for another five to ten minutes, depending on the size. Then, finally, add the clams and mussels and simmer them until they open—if, that is, you are confident that they are free of sand. If not, steam them separately and add them at the very last moment, along with their liquid, strained to eliminate any sediment, just long enough for them to heat through. Sprinkle with a bit more finely chopped parsley and serve immediately.
Measurements are not particularly important in this rustic dish. The amount of tomato will greatly influence the end taste. Some recipes call for a lot of tomato—equal in weight to the seafood—but most call for about half as much by weight. The ratio among the various kinds of seafood is pretty free as well, but I find a good rule of them is to use about as much fish as other sorts of seafood. Or you can eliminate the fish altogether, and just use the mollusks and some shellfish like shrimp or crab, in which case you will have zuppa di pesce senza spine, or ‘boneless’ fish soup.
Zuppa di pesce is usually served with toasted bread, rubbed with garlic and sometimes drizzled with a bit of olive oil. The bread is also wonderful fried in olive oil—but that can be a bit heavy for modern tastes. I often just use bread to sop up the wonderful juices, an act that Italians call fare la scarpetta, meaning ‘to make the little shoe’ (see Glossary for details).
Notes on Zuppa di Pesce
There are some minor variations among the recipes, mostly concerning when to add what. Some recipes call for adding the squid and/or octopus directly to the garlic soffritto, before the tomatoes. Some call for adding the wine either before the tomato or at the same time. And the parsley can be added at almost any time, along with the garlic at the very beginning, or at very end. And, depending how pervasive you want the garlic to be, you can use it slightly crushed (my favorite) or chopped or sliced. A few recipes call for onion instead of, or in addition to, the garlic—but onion is more typical of the northern types of fish soup.
As mentioned, there are many varieties of fish soup to be found all over the country. You could write a book (or a blog) just about all the different versions. I plan to blog at least on the most famous of these, like cacciucco alla livornese and the broèto from Venice, in the future.
And fish soups are not just limited to Italy. There are versions from all over the Mediterranean and beyond. The most famous one of all, without a doubt, is the wonderful Provençal bouillabaisse. The Greeks have their kakavia and the Spanish their sopa de pescado y marisco, and various fish soups can be found all over Latin America. And, of course, let’s not forget the cioppino from San Francisco.