Scallops happen to be one of my very favorite seafoods. But in the years I was living in Italy, I didn’t eat them very much. If fact, if memory serves, I don’t recall seeing them on menus or in the markets in Rome, where I lived.* Seafood is ubiquitous in Rome, and indeed the variety of local fish, mollusks and crustaceans is breathtaking. But scallops were MIA, at least in the everyday trattorie and pizzerie I used to frequent. They don’t figure largely in traditional Roman cuisine, even though a species of scallop, the pecten jacobaeus, is native to the Mediterranean.
But there is, in fact, at least one place in Italy where scallops reign supreme: Venice, where they prepare them in this simple but delicious manner, dredged in breadcrumbs, then quickly sautéed in olive oil with a parsley and garlic mince, and finally brightened with a squeeze of lemon.
Although capesante alla veneziana (Venetian Style Scallops) are perhaps most closely associated with holidays like Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve, I think this quickly prepared yet elegant dish is also a lovely way to start a Valentine’s Day dinner. Scallops are quite expensive, yes, but only two or three per person makes for a lovely, lightly antipasto. Or double the portion for use as a second course.
And while I can’t vouch for the supposed aphrodisiacal properties of scallops, I can guarantee that this delicious dish is sure to please your Valentine.
Serves 2 as antipasto or 1 as a second course
- 4-6 sea scallops (shucked and cleaned if need be, see Notes)
- fine breadcrumbs, q.b.
- 1 small clove of garlic, peeled and finely minced
- A few sprigs of parsley, trimmed of their steams and finely minced
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
- freshly squeezed lemon juice, to taste (see Notes)
Take the garlic and half the parsley and finely mince them together. ( A mezzaluna chopped is the ideal tool for the job but if you don’t have one, a knife or mini-chopper will do fine.)
In a skillet large enough to hold the scallops comfortably in a single layer, sauté the garlic and parsley mince over a very gentle flame just until they begin to give off their aroma.
Dredge the scallops in the breadcrumbs and add the scallops to the skillet. Raise the heat slightly and sauté them gently until lightly browned top and bottom, perhaps 2-3 minutes a side, depending on their size.
Transfer the scallops to individual serving dishes.
Add the lemon juice to the pan juices in the skillet, stir and let simmer for a minute, then nap the scallops with the resulting sauce. Sprinkle with the remaining parley.
In Italy, scallops are sold still in their shells just like clams and oysters. Traditionally you clean the shells and use them as your serving dish. Here in the US (and perhaps elsewhere?) scallops are rarely sold in their shells. Apparently, the shells don’t stay shut outside of the water for very long, so to avoid spoilage (and save on storage costs) they are shelled at sea. This may be convenient for the consumer as well, but unfortunately, it also means that scallops are easily faked by unscrupulous sellers. Avoid, if you can, “wet” scallops, which have been stored in water, to which chemical preservatives are sometimes added. This gives them a less pure flavor and a tougher texture. Plus, their liquid tends to ooze when cooked, making more difficult to brown.
If you want to approximate the classic presentation of capesante alla veneziana, you can use those shell shaped dishes for Coquilles Saint Jacques. But of course it’s not required. I own them myself, but for today’s post I preferred to use the beautiful, nearly 100 year old heirloom I inherited from Angelina pictured above.
If you do buy your scallops still in their shells, you’ll need to shuck the shells and remove the scallops by running the blade along the inside of the shells. For this recipe, you should remove the coral as well. (You can discard it or eat it separately, as it’s quite tasty in its own right.) Scrape the insides of the shell clean and wash it well for serving.
Italian recipes for capesante alla veneziana simply call for “capesante”, or scallops, obviously meaning the Mediterranean scallop, or pecten jacobaeus mentioned at the top. Here in the US, we have a choice of sometimes enormous sea scallops, fished in deep ocean waters, or the tiny bay scallops, fished close to shore. This presents something of a dilemma for making Italian dishes, since while bay scallops are much smaller than Mediterranean ones, our sea scallops can be much bigger. Truth be told, either can work in this dish, but sea scallops will give the better results provided they’re not too terribly large. If you do opt for bay scallops, skip the breadcrumbs (see below) and, of course, reduce the cooking times for perhaps 2-3 minutes total.
This dish works fine with frozen scallops, which are a bit more economical than fresh. Just make sure to defrost them completely and pat them dry before using. Following advice from fellow blogger David of Cocoa & Lavender (see comments to this post) you can dry them out in the fridge with paper towels .
Capesante alla veneziana is a super quick and simple dish, but truthfully it can be tricky to get right. Most importantly, make sure to use gentle heat throughout. You need to do this since minced garlic can burn so easily. And even if it doesn’t actually burn, minced garlic tends to turn quite bitter when browned. The scallops on the other hand are supposed to brown, even if only lightly. (This isn’t a dish where you’re aiming to sear the scallops.)
So you’ll need to regulate the temperature very carefully. It should be gentle enough to minimize the risk of burning or over-browning the garlic, but just high enough to ensure some browning of the breadcrumb crust on the scallops. (Full disclosure: This took me a couple of tries to get this right.)
Also, don’t overcook the scallops. If you do, they’ll lose their lovely sweetness and turn tough and rubbery. Cook them only for a couple of minutes on each side as indicated in the recipe. Remove them from the heat as soon as they have cooked through, even if they haven’t browned terribly much. If you have any doubts, press them with your finger. The scallops should feel “springy” to the touch.
Treating the other ingredients
Be discrete with the garlic. This is one of the relatively few Italian dishes where you sauté minced garlic. Most Italian dishes garlic cloves are used whole (or slightly crushed) and discarded after just a few minutes’ sauté. Mincing, on the other hand, brings out their flavor in a very aggressive way. Plus, the garlic stays in the dish. So use less than you might think, as indicated above just one small clove should do for 4-6 scallops.
The breadcrumbs should be very fine so they adhere well to the scallops. Coarse breadcrumbs like panko and even some of the coarser regular commercial breadcrumbs will tend to fall off while cooking since the recipe doesn’t employ egg or flour to help them adhere. If you have any doubts, you can give them a whiz in the food processor or, even better, grind them with a mortar and pestle. (That said, even with fine breadcrumbs some will inevitably fall off. Don’t fret too much about it.)
Some recipes for capesante alla veneziana don’t call for breadcrumbs at all, so that’s an option if you prefer. But breadcrumbs do lend a nice bit of crunch, a pleasant contrast to the velvety texture of the scallops. And they also help resolve the browning dilemma mentioned above.
You will notice I’ve called for lemon juice “to taste”. Italian recipes will generally call for the juice of a full half lemon for this number of scallops. I find that results in a sauce that far too tart for my taste. But tastes vary. If you like assertive acidity, then go with the original recipe. And of course, the type of lemon will influence how much you use. If you’re using relatively sweet lemons like a Meyer, then you may want to use a bit more than otherwise.
In a word, don’t. Capesante alla veneziana are best when served warm, and they lose their charm when reheated. Given how quick the dish is to prepare, there’s really do need to make them ahead.
Scallops as an aphrodisiac
The notion that scallops have aphrodisiacal properties is an ancient one. In fact, you could say that scallops are the original aphrodisiac. According to Greek myth, the goddess of love Aphrodite—perhaps better known to us by her Roman name, Venus— was born from the sea foam and carried to shore on a scallop shell. Perhaps the most famous depiction of this myth is this iconic painting by Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli:
This association with sensuality extends to other bivalves like oysters, reinforced by their shape that, to some, is reminiscent of the vulva and the soft, velvety texture of their meat. And moreover, scallops and other bivalves are high in zinc, which is said to raise levels of both testosterone and estrogen. So maybe there’s a scientific basis for this notion after all? I guess there’s one way to put it to the test…
* That may have just been me. Or times may have changed since then. A quick Google search for “capesante a Roma” reveals that there are a number of restaurants in town—mostly very upscale—that serve them.
Capesante alla veneziana
- 4-6 sea scallops shucked and cleaned if need be
- fine breadcrumbs q.b.
- 1 small clove of garlic peeled and finely minced
- A few sprigs of parsley trimmed of their steams and finely minced
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
- freshly squeezed lemon juice to taste
- Take the garlic and half the parsley and finely mince them together.
- In a skillet large enough to hold the scallops comfortably in a single layer, sauté the garlic and parsley mince over a very gentle flame just until they begin to give off their aroma.
- Dredge the scallops in the breadcrumbs and add the scallops to the skillet. Raise the heat slightly and sauté them gently until lightly browned top and bottom, perhaps 2-3 minutes a side, depending on their size.
- Transfer the scallops to individual serving dishes.
- Add the lemon juice to the pan juices in the skillet, stir and let simmer for a minute, then nap the scallops with the resulting sauce. Sprinkle with the remaining parley.
- Serve immediately.
I have to agree with you-capesante are my favourite seafood! I have seen them in Italy, but they are not common. They were in my risotto at Trattoria alla Madonna in Venezia. Will have to try this recipe. Ciao, Cristina
Hope you like it, Cristina!
We love scallops so this beautiful dish would be a gorgeous starter. I usually buy the frozen large scallops from Costco, they are excellent quality. You can even smell the sea when you open the bag. In Toronto, scallops without the shell are most popular but I have seen them with the shells in occasion at the fish monger’s.
I’ll have to remember that next time I order from Costco. Thanks for the tip! Lucky you can find scallops still in the shell. Sadly, I’ve never seen them in these parts.. but I plan to keep looking!
I love the charger plate Frank, and i love scallops. They cost the earth here so in my most recent post, I used frozen ones which are a bit cheaper. Ah now I see you have too!:=)
Indeed I did!
Simply DELICIOUS! Paola
Thanks so much, Paola. 🙂
What an elegant meal! Absolutely perfect for Valentine’s Day.
Thanks for the kind words, Caitlin!
Wow, this sounds like a delightful and elegant dish! I love scallops and the Venetian style with breadcrumbs, parsley, garlic, and lemon sounds like the perfect combination. I’ll have to try it out for Valentine’s Day or any special occasion. Thanks for sharing this recipe!
And thank you, Raymund, for stopping by!
I know I’ve mentioned it before, but I’m a huge Roman history buff – and that extends into Roman + Greek mythology. I know that Botticelli painting well, and this is the first time I’ve ever connected the scallop shell to the aphrodisiacal properties of scallops. Fun! Either way, Laura does love scallops, and this sounds like a delicious (and easy) recipe. Thanks, Frank!
Yes, I remember you’re a Roman history fan. And I totally agree Greco-Roman mythology is a lot of fun. I remember I had a coloring book when I was in third grade which is how I first encountered it. Loved those stories ever since.
What a perfectly lovely dish, Frank — and I mean that in both ways! Angelina’s china and those beautiful scallops. Just perfect. I had scallops like this once in Venice and they were so gracious to make them without the garlic for me, and didn’t even seem fazed at the thought. (Putting cheese on them would have fazed them!)
I learned a trick for making sure pre-frozen scallops are nice and dry for sautéing: after you thaw and pat them dry, place them on a paper towel-lined plate in the refrigerator uncovered for an hour or so. The natural defrosting aspects of the fridge will dry them out and make them perfect for sautéing.
Thanks, David! And what a great tip. I dry out steak in the fridge (sans paper towel) but hadn’t thought of it for scallops.
No scallops in Rome?
Maybe things have changed, Frank, since you lived here, but they are available daily at mercato Trionfale!
Good to know, Don! Yes, it’s been quite a few years now. And also, as I pointed out in my footnote, it may just have been the places that I frequented when I live there.
I never buy scallops here as they are imported and very expensive, and very small. We buy whole ones that are hand dived when we travel so I will look out for some in Naples when we are there in May, to try your recipe.
If you do, I hope you like it, Tandy!
Absolutely delicious, Frank! I had scallops in Venice just last October. They are one of my favorite types of seafood, but yes, absolutely no scallop recipes handed down by family!
Funny thing, that…
How elegantly you have matched your plate to the beautiful dish served on it ! So very simple . . . so perfect a way to present a very simple dish . . . No problem finding the freshest of scallops on shell here . . . am already rushing out of the door to get some . . .
Thanks so much, Eha! Do you hope you like this. Simple as it is, it’s a winner.
Beautiful. Just beautiful.
Thanks, Mimi! 🙂
I love scallops with fried chorizo, but what’s not to like about a simple dish of Capesante alla veneziana!
Nothing in my book! 🙂
When I buy scallops I try to find dry pack scallops rather than the wet pack kind as the latter does not brown very well.
Excellent point, Tom. I’ll need to point that out. Plus added water (and chemicals) is never a good thing.
We’re lucky to have lots of delicious scallops in our waters here around Scotland. I’m looking forward to trying out this recipe next time I buy some. Yum!
Lucky you, Neil! Do hope you like it.
They look absolutely droolworthy! Scallops are quite expensive, esp. the fresh one…might just use frozen one instead.
Yes, that’s perfectly fine. In fact, I used frozen for this recipe!