Just a few weeks ago we looked at my grandmother’s pollo e patate (chicken and potatoes) and last year it was agnello e patate (lamb and potatoes). Well, fish is also exquisite oven-roasted with potatoes as well, and while the chicken and lamb were ‘down home’ dishes pesce al forno con patate is elegant enough to serve for a formal dinner party. It is a popular item on the menu of Roman restaurants, where the waiters may dazzle you with their fish-bonding skills, as they separate the fish fillets from the lisca(fish backbone) and serve it too you, fully intact, along with a nice helping of creamy, unctuous potato.
The basic technique, however, is a little different from the other dishes we’ve looked at. The main difference is that fish, even a whole fish called for here, takes less time to cook than potatoes. The recipes for this dish generally suggest one or both of two ways to get around this: some recipes (including most modern ones) will tell you to slice the potatoes into paper-thin slices; this speeds up their cooking time. Older recipes, including one from Ada Boni in her iconic Talismano, suggest that you oven roast the potatoes for a good 20-30 minutes before you add the fish; this gives them a good head start in the cooking process. I prefer the older method, since it is basically fool-proof. Either way, the fish is not mixed up in pieces as for chicken or lamb, but laid, whole (head and tail included) on top of a bed of potatoes. Often, a few pomodorini (cherry tomatoes) are laid around the fish as well to add color and flavor.
Ingredients (serves 3-6, depending on the size of the fish and appetites)
1 whole fish, cleaned and gutted, but with the head and tail left on (see Notes)
4-6 medium potatoes (or more if you like)
A sprig of fresh rosemary (or another fresh herb of your choice)
Salt and Pepper
A garlic clove, finely chopped
A few cherry tomatoes, split in half
A drizzle of white wine
Peel and slice the potatoes as thinly as you can manage. (If you have a ‘mandoline’ or food processor with a slicing blade, it will make short work of this. But if you have decent knife skills, it should not take long.
Mix the potato slices with a generous amount of olive oil, salt, pepper and a few rosemary leaves that you will have finely chopped. If using the garlic, add it as well. (In the alternative, you can simply rub the baking dish with garlic, which gives a very subtle savoriness to the dish, suitable for more formal occasions.)
Lay the potato slices on the bottom of a baking dish large enough to accommodate the fish and potatoes comfortably. (If you want to be fancy, you can arrange the slices in neat rows or an attractive pattern for a more elegant look.)
Roast the potatoes in a moderate hot oven (190°C/375°F) for about 20-30 minutes. Then remove them from the oven and lay the whole fish, which you will have seasoned well with salt and pepper, over the potatoes, with the sprig of rosemary inserted inside it. If using, arrange the tomato halves around the fish. Drizzle the whole with some more olive oil and, if you like, a bit of white wine (not too much) which will help the potatoes to soften and add a slight tartness that complements the dish.
Roast the fish until done, usually about 20-30 minutes more (see Notes). Let the dish rest and cool off for a good 5-10 minutes before serving. Now it’s time for you to show off your fish-boning skills for all your guests… and even if your fish boning skills won’t dazzle them—and that’s certainly the case with me—the fish will still be delicious!
NOTES: Just about any decent sized fish will do. In Rome, I remember the most popular fish seemed to be orata (sea bream) and spigola (aka branzino), European sea bass, which I have seen marketed here in the US with the Italian name ‘branzino’. But red snapper, for example, is very fine indeed made this way, too. Do be sure to tell your fishmonger to scale and gut the fish, but to leave head and tail on. Not only is the presentation more dramatic, these parts of the fish do add a great deal of flavor, even if you don’t eat them. (Actually, they say the most delicate part of the fish is the cheek, which you can ‘fish out’ with a spoon—pardon the pun—right below the eye.) If you are squeamish about the idea, however, the recipe will still work with head and tail removed. You can even use fish fillets if you like, but then increase the cooking time for the potatoes so they are almost done before laying on your fillets, which should only take about five minutes more.
Speaking of cooking time, you may have seen or read the ‘rule of thumb’ for cooking fish: 10 minutes per 2.5cm/1 inch of thickness. I find that this works rather well, but I usually shave a couple of minutes off the total cooking time, as I abhor overcooked fish. You can also calculate cooking time by weight, as shown here. As for meat, you can usually tell when fish is done by its texture: once it loses its springiness when you poke it with your fingers, it is done. If you wait until the flesh is flaky, it’ll be overdone.
Boning a whole fish is a real skill. Watching your waiter fillet a fish at tableside is one of the small delights of dining in a good fish restaurant in Rome (and elsewhere in Italy). But it is a skill that just about anyone can master, and a great way to impress your dinner guests! There are a few different ways to do it, but my basic technique is to slip my filleting knife from the sides of the fish, along the top of the backbone to loosen the fillets above. Then I cut vertically from above along the backbone to cut the flesh into two halves, then lift each half, intact, on to plates. The backbone will now be exposed, ready to lift out, leaving the flesh below, which you can easily cut in half and lift out. This produces four nice fillets for your diners. Smaller fish (like trout) will produce only two fillets, one top and one bottom, while very large fish you can give your eight pieces by splitting the fillets cross-wise. It’s one of those things that sounds more complicated than it really is. The best way to learn is to see it done; this video, which shows a slightly different and simpler method, is a bit worn but it shows you the basic method.
Personally, I love fish skin so I never remove it, but for those who want skinless fillets, it is quite easy to remove the top side skin before you begin this operation. In fact, as shown in the video, it does make the job of filleting that much easier.
NB: Remember, filleting a fish only removes the backbone. You and your dining companions will still need to take care to remove the pin bones as you eat.
But don’t all this deter you, as it will become second nature with time, and oven roasted fish is one of the great delights of the Italian—or any other—table!