Cacciucco (Tuscan Fish Soup)

Franksecondi piatti, Toscana31 Comments

Cacciucco

One of the most iconic dishes in Tuscan cookery, cacciucco is a fish soup made in the costal areas of Tuscany, most famously in and around the port city of Livorno.

Like many Italian fish “soups”, cacciucco is really more of a stew, made from a large variety of fish, mollusks and crustaceans. Tradition has it there should be at least five types of seafood, one for each “c” in cacciucco. Truth be told, there’s no need to fuss too much about the specific number, but variety is at the heart of a good cacciucco.

Also like other fish soups, the seafood is cooked in a tomato-tinged broth. You start with a soffritto or flavor base of garlic, sage and hot red pepper briefly sautéed in lots of olive oil. The seafood is then simmered in stages: the first to go into the pot are the mollusks like octopus and squid that need fairly long cooking. Then in go the finny fish, cut into chunks, to simmer for a few minutes, and finally the delicate seafood that needs only a couple of minutes cooking right before serving, typically a crustacean like shrimp and sometimes a bivalve like mussels.

It has to be said that, strictly speaking, it’s challenging if not impossible to make a proper cacciucco outside the Mediterranean basin. For example, where I live I can’t find those small bony (but super-flavorful) fishes typical of cacciucco and so many other Mediterranean fish soups that the Italians call pesce da zuppa or “fish for soup”. Indeed, they say the very name cacciucco is a corruption of the Turkish word küçük, which means “small”, a reference to the small fish used in making it.

That said, you can make an excellent fish soup in the spirit of cacciucco with whatever fish and other seafood you can find where you live. After all, they say fish soups were originally a way for fishermen to use up the unsold odds and ends of their daily catch. You can find some suggestions for substitutions in the Notes below. While it might not be 100% “DOC“, your ersatz cacciucco will be perfectly delicious.

Ingredients

Serves 4-6

For the soffritto:

  • 2-3 cloves garlic, peeled and slightly crushed
  • A sprig or two of fresh sage
  • 1-2 peperoncini or a pinch of red pepper flakes
  • olive oil

The seafood: An assortment of 2 kilos (4 lbs) of seafood from the following three categories:

  • For stage 1: octopus, baby octopus, squid and/or cuttlefish, trimmed if needed and cut into pieces
  • For stage 2: firm-fleshed fish, filleted if you want and cut into chunks
  • For stage 3: mantis, jumbo or large shrimp and/or mussels

To cook the seafood:

  • a generous pour of red (or white) wine
  • 500g (2 cups) tomato passata, or a small can of peeled tomatoes passed through a food mill, or to taste
  • water or fish broth (see Notes), q.b.
  • 2 Tb tomato paste (optional)

And serve with:

  • Finely minced parsley (optional)
  • Fettunta, aka bruschetta made with garlic and olive oil only

Directions

Prep the seafood as needed (see Notes).

Prepare the soffritto aka flavor base:

In a wide pot or sauté pan large enough to hold all the ingredients, gently sauté the garlic and sage in abundant olive just until fragrant. Take care not to brown the garlic. Add the peperoncino and let sauté for just a few moments.

Stage 1:

Add the octopus, squid and/or cuttlefish to the pot. Let them simmer in the aromatics for five minutes or so.

Add red wine and let it evaporate, then the passata and let it simmer for another five minutes.

Then add enough water or broth to cover and continue simmering for another 30 minutes, or until tender.

Stage 2:

Now add the fish, along with more water or broth if needed. Let simmer for another 5 minutes or, until almost cooked through.

Stage 3:

Finally add the shrimp, mussels and/or other crustaceans. Simmer just until the crustaceans have turned pink and the mussels have opened.

Serve your cacciucco right away, sprinkled with parsley on top and with the fettunta in the bottom of the bowl or, if you prefer, on the side.

Cacciucco

Notes

Like all fish soups, the key to success when making cacciucco is the proper cooking of the different types of seafood Each type has different cooking times, hence the three stage approach. For the squid and especially the octopus, the main risk is under-cooking, while the main risk for the finny fish and crustaceans is over-cooking. After Stage 1, you should check to make sure your mollusks are tender before proceeding. In Stage 2, the fish should take no more than five to seven minutes total, so undercook them slightly before proceeding to Stage 3, which should only take another couple of minutes. Remove the pot from the heat as soon as the mussels open.

Choosing your seafood

A proper cacciucco will have at least one type of seafood for each stage of cooking. For Stage 1, octopus and/or moscardini, or baby octopus, are practically a must. They appear in just about every Italian recipe for cacciucco I’ve seen.

As for Stage 2, the most emblematic fish for are scorfano (scorpaena porcus aka scorpion fish) and palombo (mustelus mustelus aka dogfish or “common tooth hound” fish). Both are Mediterranean fish not available here in the US, as far as I’m aware. UK readers may have better luck as both range into the eastern Atlantic as far north as the British Isles. Other fish typically mentioned in recipes for cacciucco include some that you can find outside the Mediterrean, in particular rana pescetrice or monkfish, dentice, or red snapper, and branzino or sea bass. They all make fine choices. Although not generally mentioned in Italian recipes, you could also opt for another firm fleshed fish like cod, halibut or haddock. And in a pinch, even tilapia.

Other fish you’ll often find in Italian recipes include galinelle (chelidonichthys cuculus or Gurnard), pesce prete (uranoscopus scaber or Atlantic Stargazer) and pesce san Pietro (literally the “St. Peter fish”, known in English as John Dory). Again, the range of these fishes extend into the eastern Atlantic. I understand that the John Dory at least and perhaps Gurnard is common in the UK? Readers there are welcome to weigh in…

And for the final third stage of cookery, cannocchie or mantis shrimp, with their lovely sweet, lobster-like flavor, are very typical of cacciucco, but again you may not be able to find them. If not, try to find as large shrimp as you can.

Prepping your seafood

The seafood should be cut into largish but still bite-sized pieces. Not too small or they may fall apart when cooked. If you’re using baby octopus, you can simply leave them whole. Ditto for shrimp and other small crustaceans, of course. I personally like to leave the heads and shells on my shrimp, but that’s a matter of personal taste.

As for finny fish, assuming you’re not buying fillets to begin with, the heads should be removed but you can use it for stock (see below). It’s up to you whether you want to leave the bones on the fish. It’s probably best to do so for smaller whole fish, but less desirable for larger fish like cod and monkfish.

Variations

They say there are as many versions of cacciucco as there are cooks! To mention just a few of the variations:

In some recipes, you start with a soffritto of onions, celery and sometimes carrot rather than the garlic and sage.

Some recipes call for white wine, others for red. While one doesn’t often associate red wine with seafood, this being Tuscany I suspect it’s the more traditional option.

In summer, fresh tomatoes are, of course, always welcome. You could use homemade passata or cut up tomatoes, passed through a food mill before adding to the pot. The tomato paste is quite usual but some omit it. In quite a few others, you only add tomato paste rather than fresh or canned ones. Personally, I use both. Even though I generally find tomato paste a bit ponderous in sauces, it lends a nice intensity of flavor and a slight liaison that works quite well here.

If you’re using whole fish, you can use fish heads and bones to make a quick fish stock. Simmer them in water to cover with aromatics (garlic and parsley work well) for 20 minutes or so. The stock will provide a considerable flavor boost to your dish.

In the real old timey recipes where using those tiny, bony pesci da zuppa, you remove the mollusks from Stage 1 once they’re cooked, the add your pesci da zuppa (and only them) to the pot, simmer them until the flesh is falling off the bone, and then pass the contents of the pot through a food mill, discarding the heads and bones. You use the resulting loose fish purée to continue cooking the rest of the fish and seafood.

Making cacciucco ahead

While cacciucco is at its best freshly made, you can stop the cooking at Stage 1 if you want, then come back to it shortly before you want to eat and proceed with Stages 2 and 3. You could even, in a pinch, finish the dish through Stage 2, taking care to undercook the fish.

And if you really, really need to cook the entire dish ahead, when you’re ready to serve, remove the Stage 3 seafood from the pot, reheat the rest, then once it’s good and hot, add the Stage 3 seafood back in and continue for just a minute or two and serve.

Cacciucco

Tuscan Fish Soup

Ingredients

For the soffritto

  • 2-3 cloves garlic peeled and slightly crushed
  • 1-2 sprigs fresh sage
  • 1-2 peperoncini or a pinch of red pepper flakes
  • olive oil

The seafood: An assortment of 2 kilos (4 lbs) of seafood from the following three categories: 

  • For stage 1: octopus, baby octopus, squid and/or cuttlefish trimmed if needed and cut into pieces
  • For stage 2: firm-fleshed fish filleted if you want and cut into chunks
  • For stage 3: mantis, jumbo or large shrimp and/or mussels 

To cook the seafood:

  • a generous pour of red (or white) wine
  • 500g 2 cups tomato passata, or a small can of peeled tomatoes passed through a food mill
  • water or fish broth q.b.
  • 2 Tbs tomato paste optional

Instructions

  • Prep the seafood as needed (see Notes) and set aside until needed.

Prepare the soffitto

  • In a wide pot or sauté pan large enough to hold all the ingredients, gently sauté the garlic and sage in abundant olive just until fragrant. Take care not to brown the garlic. Add the peperoncino and let sauté for just a few moments. 

Stage 1

  • Add the octopus, squid and/or cuttlefish to the pot. Let them simmer in the aromatics for five minutes or so. 
  • Add wine and let it evaporate, then the passata and let it simmer for another five minutes. 
  • Then add enough water or broth to cover and continue simmering for another 30 minutes, or until tender. 

Stage 2

  • Now add the fish, along with more water or broth if needed, and let simmer for another 5 minutes or, until almost cooked through. 

Stage 3

  • Finally add the shrimp, mussels and/or other crustaceans. Simmer just until the crustaceans have turned pink and the mussels have opened. 
  • Serve your cacciucco right away, sprinkled with parsley on top and with the fettunta on the side. 

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31 Comments on “Cacciucco (Tuscan Fish Soup)”

  1. Frank, this is one of my dying meals. I’d have to die a hundred times to accommodate each meal that I love. But I digress. Up here in Rhode Island we have great seafood and you’ve now inspired me to make this after church this Sunday. Grazie Mille!

    1. Ha! It’s a great dish. I’m familiar with the excellent seafood in Rhode Island since I went to school up there, many moons ago. Enjoy, Joe!

  2. Thanks for sharing this delicious recipe for cacciucco. I appreciate your notes on substitutions for the seafood ingredients, as it can be challenging to find the exact ingredients in some areas. I look forward to trying this recipe and hope to enjoy it as much as you have!

  3. Fish soup is definitely one of my favourites and I have had several whilst travelling through Europe. I’ve often made Bouillabaisse but never the Italian version, which will have to be remedied immediately. Plus it’s been so cold since we returned from Europe on Monday, this soup is a lovely warming meal.

  4. What a terrific stew, Frank! I am mediately started thinking about sourcing the seafood and fish for this, and it brought back memories of making my first bouillabaisse here in Arizona. Not entirely successful, as the variety of fish isn’t exactly abundant here. I had no idea that cacciucco was flavored with sage… That was a real surprise! Now that more varieties of fish are available frozen, I’d like to give this a try.

  5. Ciao Frank, thanks for sharing. I know Tuscan food pretty well but I am more familiar with the food from hinterland, Val D’Orcia and Florence. Your post makes me want to try this delicious fish soup, I love FISH. Un caro saluto, Paola

  6. Ah – I have totally eaten cacciucco while in Italy, but I’ve never even thought about recreating it here at home. This not only looks impressive, Frank….but it looks delicious, too!

  7. I’ve had cacciucco here in South Africa made with local seafood as we get similar fish here to the Mediterranean including red snapper. I might make a version of this in Napoli when we have our children with us.

    1. That’s excellent, Tandy. Whether you make it in South Africa or Napoli—or both—I’m sure you’ll enjoy it immensely.

  8. Oh I love various fish soup / stew recipes as they are always so hearty and delicious. This version sounds simply terrific, and it must be packed with a ton of flavours! I’d definitely love to have a bowl of it along with those crusty garlicky brushetta!

  9. that looks great Frank. Yes that’s life isn’t it? we take what we can where and when we can and make use of it. Life is for adapting! that’s the beauty of it.

  10. Tho’ we are 10 degrees apart north and south our seafood availabilities seem similar . . . and this gorgeous dish is far easier to prepare than it looks! Fresh commercial passata is cheap there at every store and supermarket . . . so how quickly can I get all the fish I so love . . .

  11. That looks delicious! I love fish soups and will definitely be making this one. Gurnard is common to the UK, but unloved and therefore quite cheap. I often buy scorpion fish in the Boqueria and again it’s cheap, probably because people are frightened of it’s poisonous spines. Normally the fishmongers (wearing gloves) will trim off the toxic parts before selling them. They are a very tasty fish in their own right, let alone when added to a fish soup, stew or broth.

    1. Well, then, it sounds like you’re perfectly placed to enjoy cacciucco! I can imagine why people might be a bit put off by scorpion fish or Gurnard for that matter. Just means more for us fish lovers… 😉

  12. Seems very similar to cioppino. I add fresh fennel instead of sage. I also add lobster and clams. This is our Christmas Eve dinner

    1. Yes, there’s definitely a family resemblance, as mentioned in our post on cioppino. Although they say that it was named after a similar fish soup ciuppin from near-by Liguria.

  13. Hi Frank, looks fab! I have never had cacciucco (but will probably never spell it wrong now that I know it has 5 Cs)! I have had, and make, cioppino, but I love the flavors in this seafood stew as well. Will have to remember to try it when I’m in coastal Tuscany. Thanks!

    1. Thanks, Christina! Cacciucco is definitely a must when in coastal Tuscany. And definitely worth making at home when you’re not… 😉

  14. I love cacciucco. I enjoyed it last year in a restaurant close to the fish market in Livorno. It’s customary to put the fettunta at the bottom of the bowl and ladle the stew on top.

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