The sea is never too far away in Puglia, and seafood is everywhere—nowhere more so than its capital and principal port of Bari. So it should come as no surprise that orata alla barese or Sea Bream Bari Style, is one of the city’s signature dishes.
Orata alla barese riffs off the classic and uber-popular oven-roasted fish on a bed of potatoes. But here the fish not only gets a bed to rest on but a protective potato “blanket” as well. And then there’s an even more interesting twist … pecorino cheese!? That may come as a surprise to many of you Italian food aficionados, since one of the cardinal “rules” of Italian cookery is that fish and cheese don’t mix.
But here’s the exception that proves the rule—and it works beautifully. The pecorino doesn’t clash with the delicate taste of the fish as you might expect. In fact, assuming you have a light touch, the finished dish doesn’t taste cheesy at all. The pecorino lends an extra depth of flavor that’s absolutely delicious and yet hard to identify. It reminds me of the way anchovies are added to sautéed greens or certain pasta dishes without lending scarcely any fishiness.
Sea bream is a wonderful fish, with a delicate flavor akin to red snapper and an appealingly silky texture. It’s prized in Puglia and indeed all over Italy, as well as elsewhere in Europe and, as I understand it, in parts of Asia as well. For some reason, it’s under-appreciated in the US and can be hard to find here. It’s well worth seeking out. But in a pinch, you can always substitute another fish (see the Notes below for details).
And those potatoes! They soak up all the flavors of the fish, oil and seasonings, making them for many—including me—the best part of the dish.
Orata alla barese needs no accompaniment, but I like to follow it with a mixed green salad and then some fruit, for a light but very tasty and satisfying lunch or supper. And although it looks fancy—fa bella figura, as the Italians say—the dish takes under an hour and little effort to make, so it’s an equally fine solution for a family meal or a fancy dinner party.
- 1 medium sea bream (aka porgy), about 600-900g (1-1/2-1-3/4 lb) cleaned and scaled
- 600g (1-1/2 lbs) yellow fleshed potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
- 3-4 heaping Tbs grated pecorino cheese
- A few sprigs of parsley
- 3 cloves of garlic, peeled
- white wine
- olive oil
- salt and pepper
In a large bowl, toss the sliced potatoes with salt, pepper and enough olive oil to coat them lightly.
Mince the parsley leaves and 2 garlic cloves together finely. (Reserve the parsley stems.)
Take a large baking dish, grease the bottom with olive oil. Line the bottom with about half the potatoes. Sprinkle with a spoonful or two of the pecorino cheese, along with half of the parsley and garlic mince.
Season the sea bream with salt and pepper on all sides and inside its cavity. Insert a garlic clove and the parsley stems inside the cavity. Lay the fish in the baking dish.
Now lay the rest of the potatoes over the fish, if you like in a decorative pattern. Make sure they slightly overlap and covering the body of the fish completely. Sprinkle with the rest of the pecorino cheese, parsley and garlic. Pour a bit of white wine along the side of the dish, just enough to moisten the bottom, then drizzle everything generously with olive oil.
Roast in a moderately hot (190C/375F) oven for about 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender and lightly browned on top and the fish is cooked through.
Remove from the oven and let the dish settle for a few minutes before serving.
The recipe for orata alla barese is a simple one. The only tricky part is to make sure that both fish and potatoes turn out cooked but not overcooked. To this end, you want to slice the potatoes nice and thin so they cook in the relatively short time it will take to roast the fish. While you can achieve this with a knife if you have the skills, a mandolin slicer or a food processor will make short work of the job.
Classically, you prepare orata alla barese with whole sea bream, also known Stateside as “porgy”. Unfortunately, while it’s ubiquitous is Italy, sea bream can be difficult to find here in the US. Where I live, for example, only one mainstream supermarket carries it. Generally speaking “ethnic” markets, and specifically Asian ones, are a better bet. I got mine at a nearby Chinese supermarket. The good news is that, since apparently there’s not much call for it, it’s an incredible bargain:
If you can’t find sea bream, no worries. Red snapper or branzino both made fine substitutes. And actually this recipe will work with just about any kind of fish you fancy.
One unfortunate trend in mainstream supermarkets—at least where I live—is a move away from whole fish towards fillets. Noting against fillets per se, but it’s gotten to the point where it can be a challenge to even find whole fish. And whole fish work best when making orata alla barese, again because you don’t want the fish to cook before the potatoes do. But if you can’t find a whole fish, or if you’re one of those people who is squeamish about whole fish— as so many people these days seem to be—you can always use fillets. But since fillets will cook faster than whole fish, the above advice on slicing your potatoes thin goes double. Try to slice your potatoes paper thin. And don’t be surprised if your fish comes out a bit overcooked.
I should mention that I’ve added a few little personal touches here to the classic recipe. For one, tossing the sliced potatoes in olive and seasoning. (In most recipes, you lay down raw potatoes and drizzle olive oil over them.) Tossing not only ensures all the slices get some of that EVOO goodness, but the oil coating acts to prevent the potatoes from discoloring while you’re putting your dish together. A much better approach than soaking them in water, if you ask me!
Inserting garlic and the parsley stems into the fish’s cavity is also a little chef’s “trick”, not part of the classic recipe. I think it adds a nice bit of extra flavor to the fish and, besides, you get some use out of those stems.
In terms of the classic recipe there aren’t a ton of variations, but you can toss in a few cherry tomatoes, cut in half to the baking pan if you like. Or substitute the parsley for another fresh herb, perhaps. Not all recipes call for the wine (most don’t in fact) but again I think the steam it creates helps the potatoes to cook.
There is, however, another entirely different recipe that goes by the name orata alla barese. It’s a bit like acqua pazza, where you marinate a sea bream in a bath of white wine, raisins, bay leaf, parsley, garlic and onion for about an hour, before baking or simmering it in its marinade. And there’s yet another recipe, a kind of fusion of that recipe and this one, where after marinating the sea bream, you bake it with potatoes, moistened with just some of the marinade poured over. Worth a try, though it seems a prodigal use of white wine.
Why not combine fish and cheese?
When I think about the Italian taboo against mixing fish and cheese, an experience I had when I was a young professional in New York in the mid 1980s always comes to mind. Out with a friend at a chic Italian restaurant one night, she asked the waiter to sprinkle grated parmigiano-reggiano on her spaghetti alle vongole. The visibly horrified waiter (who was Italian) tried to dissuade her but she wouldn’t listen to reason. “I’m the customer” she insisted and all that. The waiter reluctantly complied but it was obvious he was (almost literally) holding his nose. She convinced me to take a taste, no doubt thinking she was busting a silly myth. Well, let’s just say that confirmed for me the wisdom of this particular “myth”.
That said, the rule isn’t entirely a straightforward one. After all, mozzarella and anchovies get along famously well. I’ve heard it said that the rule is really more about aged cheeses rather than fresh ones like mozzarella. They say the sharp flavor of aged cheese clashes with the delicate flavors of most seafood. I mostly agree, but even then you can find exceptions. Obviously today’s orata alla barese for one. But there’s also the classic pasta dish spaghetti with mussels and pecorino. (Why that dish works while grated cheese on spaghetti and clams doesn’t, hard to say…)
Clearly other cuisines don’t necessarily follow the Italian example. The French are perfectly happy to sprinkle cheese on Lobster Thermidor or to gratiné oysters with gruyère. And the Mexicans will happy pair shrimp and cheese to make tacos gobernador. Just to take a couple of examples. So where did the Italians get this particular “rule”? Apparently its origins are not entirely clear. According to food historian Ken Albala, the taboo is quite ancient, going all the way back to Galen and Hippocrates. And it’s not just about clashing tastes but causing unbalanced “humors” in the body. While not many people these days adhere to these ancients’ theory of balancing “humors”, it’s not uncommon even today for Italian health experts to advise against combining fish and cheese. Something about different sources of protein in the same dish taxing the liver and kidneys and slowing down the digestion…
Orata alla barese
- 1 sea bream, aka porgy about 600-900g (1-1/2 to 2 lbs) cleaned and scaled
- 600g 1-1/2 lbs yellow fleshed potatoes peeled and thinly sliced
- 3-4 heaping Tbs grated pecorino cheese
- A few sprigs of parsley
- 3 cloves garlic peeled
- white wine
- olive oil
- salt and pepper
- In a large bowl, toss the sliced potatoes with salt, pepper and enough olive oil to coat them lightly.
- Mince the parsley leaves and 2 garlic cloves together finely. (Reserve the parsley stems.)
- Take a large baking dish, grease the bottom with olive oil. Line the bottom with about half the potatoes, sprinkle with a spoonful or two of the pecorino cheese, along with half of the parsley and garlic mince.
- Season the sea bream with salt and pepper on all sides and inside its cavity. Insert a garlic clove and the parsley stems inside the cavity. Lay the fish in the baking dish.
- Now lay the rest of the potatoes over the fish, if you like in a decorative pattern, letting them slightly overlap and covering the body of the fish. Sprinkle the potato covering with the rest of the pecorino cheese, parsley and garlic. Pour a bit of white wine along the side of the dish, just enough to moisten the bottom, then drizzle everything generously with olive oil.
- Roast in a moderately hot (190C/375F) oven for about 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender and lightly browned on top and the fish is cooked through. .
- Remove from the oven and let the dish settle for a few minutes before serving