Polpo alla luciana (Santa Lucia Stewed Octopus)

FrankCampania, secondi piatti31 Comments

Polpo alla luciana

I love octopus. And in my opinion this iconic Neapolitan dish, polpo alla luciana or Stewed Octopus in the style of Santa Lucia, with is one of the loveliest ways to prepare it.

And surely one of the simplest. You simmer the octopus whole in a typically Neopolitan soffritto of garlic, hot red pepper and olive oil until it exudes its juices, then you throw in some chopped cherry tomatoes, olives and capers and continue simmering until the mollusc is tender. A sprinking of parsley at the end, and that’s all there is to it.

Named after Naples’ waterfront district of Santa Lucia—older readers will probably have heard the eponymous song celebrating the district so popular years ago—polpo alla luciana is said to have been invented by the fisherman who would cook their freshly caught octopus dockside in this rough and ready fashion at the end of the work day.

Santa Lucia
An old-timey postcard of Santa Lucia

Ingredients

Serves 4-6

  • 500g (1 lb) octopus, cleaned if need be and cut into lengths
  • 250g (1/2 lb) cherry tomatoes, cut in halvses or quarter
  • 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and slightly crushed
  • 1-2 dried red peppers
  • A handful of capers, preferably packed in salt, rinsed
  • A handful of black olives, preferably Gaeta
  • 2-3 sprigs of fresh parsley, finely minced
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Directions

In a large pot, preferably of terracotta, sauté the garlic cloves, along with the red pepper and the stems of the parsley sprigs, in the olive oil over moderate heat for just a few moments, until the garlic begins to give off its aroma.

Now add the octopus, head down, and cover. Let the octopus simmer over gentle heat for about 15 minutes.

Uncover the pot. The octopus should have given off a fair amount of liquid. Pour in the tomatoes, olives and capers and re-cover tightly. (You can use some parchment paper or aluminum foil to create a better seal if you like.) Simmer the octopus gently until tender, about 30-45 minutes.

Polpo alla luciana

Mix in the minced parsley leaves, give the pot a turn, and let it sit for five minutes.

Serve your polpo alla luciana warm, with a nice chunk of crusty bread to soak up those delicious juices.

Polpo alla luciana

Notes on Polpo alla luciana

For this post, I used pre-cleaned frozen octopus that is pretty widely available in supermarkets in our area. They are fairly small specimens and ideal for this dish. They should cook up in no more than 30 minutes. You can, of course, use larger octopus if that’s you preference, just up the simmering time. (Some recipes call for as much as two hours of simmering.)

If you are using fresh octopus and your fish monger hasn’t cleaned them for you, you’ll need to do it yourself, cleaning the eyes on its head and beak, found in the middle of its tentacles. A video is really the easiest way to understand the operation, so here you go:

NB: For this dish, there is no need to curl the tentacles as shown in the video.
Variations

There are lots of variations on polpo alla luciana. At its simplest, you simply chuck all the ingredients in the pot, seal it well and simmer until tender. In this version, we introduce a few refinements, first by starting with a soffritto for deeper flavor. Then we hold back on the other flavorings until the octopus is partially cooked and has given off its liquid. This allows the tomatoes stay at least partially intact and preserves a slightly fresher taste.

If you want a more intense tomato flavor, add some passata di pomodoro along with the cherry tomatoes. This variation brings the dish quite close to another typically Neapolitan way with octopus, purpetielli affogati, and leftovers are delicious as a sauce for pasta.

Interestingly, Jeanne Caròla Francesconi offers up a very different version of polpo alla luciana in her masterwork, La cucina napoletana. She tells you to boil the octopus in water (preferably sea water in fact) in a pignata (a tall terracotta pot) for 20-30 minutes, drain it, cut it up into pieces and dress the pieces in olive oil, garlic, parsley and lemon juice. Basically a kind of octopus salad, this may well have been the original version of the dish, as there are stories about the original version where the octopus is cooked in sea water, while this more modern version has it simmer in its own juices.

Polpo alla luciana

Santa Lucia Style Stewed Octopus
Total Time1 hr
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: Campania, Italian
Keyword: braised, seafood, stewed

Ingredients

  • 1 kilo 2 lbs octopus pre-cleaned
  • 500g 1 lb cherry tomatoes cut in halvses or quarters
  • 2-3 cloves garlic peeled and slightly crushed
  • 1-2 dried hot red peppers
  • 1 handful capers preferably packed in salt, rinsed
  • 1 handful black olives preferably of the Gaeta variety
  • 2-3 sprigs fresh parsley finely minced
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Instructions

  • In a large pot, preferably of terracotta, sauté the garlic cloves, along with the red pepper and the stems of the parsley sprigs, in the olive oil over moderate heat for just a few moments, until the garlic begins to give off its aroma.
  • Now add the octopus, head down, and cover. Let the octopus simmer over gentle heat for about 15 minutes.
  • Uncover the pot. The octopus should have given off a fair amount of liquid. Pour the tomatoes, olives and capers and re-cover tightly. (You can use some parchment paper or aluminum foil to create a better seal if you like.) Simmer the octopus gently until tender, about 30-45 minutes.
  • Mix in the minced parsley leaves, give the pot a turn, and let it sit for five minutes.
  • Serve your polpo alla luciana warm, with a nice chunk of crusty bread to soak up those delicious juices.

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31 Comments on “Polpo alla luciana (Santa Lucia Stewed Octopus)”

  1. So I have to say that cooking octopus is new to me – however, it’s something I’d be willing to try! I mean I do enjoy calimari, and I suspect octopus is in the same family of flavors/texture? I love rustic dishes, and this one sounds quite rustic – and I highly suspect the original version was indeed cooking in sea water right there on the docks in Naples. Cool idea!

    1. David, if you like squid, I bet you’d love octopus. It does have a similar taste, although a bit “meatier” if I can put it that way, in both taste and texture. Do give it a try, I think octopus is delicious!

  2. Oh wow! This is making my mouth water!! Fantastic flavours that I really want to try. We actually can’t get octopus that easily here (even though we are situation just off the north Australian coast) but we do get lovely whole squid which I think I could sub in this recipe.

  3. Frank, I’m with you when it comes to enjoying your Polpo alla luciana with a chunk of crusty bread. I’ve not seen those little eight-limbed mollusc in the freezer section of our markets. I shall check with our fishmonger and see if he can get them. A perfect stew for a cool fall evening…

  4. Methinks I could eat octopus dishes every week. All our country supermarkets sell large ones a tad smaller than in the video and then the delightful babies so good for Asian dishes. Supposedly they are fresh . . . am certain defrosting has come unto the scenario 🙂 ! I mostly use the ‘tinies’, and those regularly, preparing the larger ‘Greek style’ which is rather similar to yours but always includes some form of already cooked tomatoes . . . often also using Middle Eastern spices. Next time shall follow your recipe . . . thanks !

  5. I’m going to try this out. It vaguely reminds me of Marcella Hazan’s Ligurean Squid with Potato that we all love. I think that recipe calls for wine. Ill keep my fingers crossed that the octopus comes out tender. BTW When the Italians use the expression “affogatti” is it just a generic term for stewed?

    1. The word literally means “drowned”. It can refer to any time you immerse an ingredient in a liquid. Generally speaking that does mean stewing/braising, but sometimes no cooking is involved, as in gelato affogato, where you douse a scoop or two of gelato in coffee. In fact, if you say “affogato” without any qualifier or context, the dessert is what most Italians would think of.

  6. I am glad to know that frozen octopus works well, as that is pretty much what I can find now. Whole Foods used to carry it fresh but I have not seen it much during the pandemic. This looks just amazing.

  7. This looks so good! Like your parsley technique a lot — first cooking the stems, then adding the leaves at the end. I always discard the stems — this is a great way to use them. Great dish — thanks.

    1. And thank you for stopping by, John. That parsley trick I just picked up recently by watching Italian videos. The wonder of the internets.

  8. This looks absolutely mouth watering! I ate a lot of octopus while we were wintering in Spain earlier this year, I was in heaven. I’ve always been s little hesitant to cook octopus but your recipe seems easy enough, and I know I already love the flavours. It’s definitely a beautiful dish.

  9. You are so lucky you can get octopus! Even frozen. This stew sounds lovely with the olives and capers. I love octopus and squid so much…

  10. Frank – We’re big fans of octopus here too, and typically only make it at Christmas time. Maybe because it’s hard to find it fresh at other times of year, but I’ll keep my eyes out for it in the frozen aisle, as you mentioned, The Neapolitans certainly know a thing or two about seafood, and this is no exception.

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