ZUPPA DI PESCE – Mediterranean fish stew

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It’s very often that too many topics come to mind when I sit down to write this column but I had help last week when I was approached by “Junior” as I walked down Salem Street – “I like your articles in the North End News but why don’t you write something about fish – I’d like to see a good recipe .” It then reminded me of great times at the table, sopping toasted bread into a soup bowl filled with an aromatic savory, thick red fish broth flavored with octopus, squid, shrimp, periwinkles, clams, mussels, lobster, cod, mullet, monkfish and sea bass. Thanks for the request Junior! Whether at the beach, roof deck or dining table – invite your friends this summer for this delicious fish extravaganza.

There are probably as many recipes for fish soup in Italy as there are church bells. Its ingredients vary widely from town to town and are totally dependent on the fisherman’s catch of the day as well as the individual touch of the cook. Along the coast of Tuscany it is called cacciucco and they claim to have learnt the recipe from the Turks, with whom they had traded years ago. It traditionally includes five kinds of assorted fish and shellfish, one for every c in cacciucco. and red rather than white wine is used for the base. Versions from the Veneto and Friuli area often omit shellfish and tomatoes. In Sicily the dish is often cooked in one big pot in the oven rather than on the stove-top. My favorite recipe is from the region of Le Marches, where it is called a brodetto and made especially savory with the addition of saffron, lemon and orange rind and a splash of vinegar.

The two most important factors in creating a great fish soup are to use the freshest fish available and to know the amount of time needed to cook the different fish varieties. Most fish soups start with a sauté of garlic and onions in olive oil, then adding tomatoes, wine, broth and herbs, and then the seafood – in the order in which it should cook for proper consistency and doneness. You can use most any fish or shellfish except for strongly flavored fatty fish like salmon, bluefish, mackerel or eel, which would dominate the dish. If you include squid or cuttlefish, add them either the last few minutes the soup cooks, or cook them in the base for 25 to 30 minutes as it simmers. Both need to be cooked either a long time to tenderize them, or very briefly. If you cook them any length of time in between, they will be tough. My extravagant recipe has a huge assortment of seafood and is a wonderful feast for at least 8 people. It can be a bit messy eating so don’t serve it at an elegant dinner party. If you would like to try a simpler stew, choose only a couple of things. Juggling a lot of seafood and having it all come out perfectly cooked can be a bit intimidating.

The soup can be made uniquely your own by the addition of distinguishing flavors such as the addition of sliced celery or chopped fennel bulb to the sautéed onion, or a spoonful of capers or a good pinch of hot red chile flakes.

Serve the brodetto to each person in a large soup bowl, with a sampling of fish and a ladle of broth. Place a slice or two of coarse country bread, toasted or grilled to the side of the bowl and sprinkle the soup with chopped parsley. If there is any remaining fish, place it on a serving platter with an array of seafood around it. Provide plenty of napkins, lobster crackers, large pins to remove the periwinkle bodies and empty bowls for shells. A crisp cool Vermentino, Verdicchio or Sauvignon Blanc wine would provide the perfect accompaniment.

Serves 6-8

Ingredients for fish and shellfish
  • 1 medium or 2 small live lobsters
  • 1 or 2 rock, blue or sand crabs
  • 1 lb. medium shrimp
  • 16 small clams (littlenecks or razor clams), scrubbed
  • 1 lb. small mussels, scrubbed and debearded if necessary
  • 1 lb. squid or cuttlefish, cleaned, bodies cut into rings, tentacles left whole or halved if large (about 1/2 lb after cleaning)
  • 1/2 lb. periwinkles, scrubbed
  • 3-4 lbs. assorted white fleshed fish, cleaned, scaled and cut into 2 or 3 inch manageable pieces (monkfish, halibut, whiting, haddock, cod, snapper, sea bass or the like)
Ingredients for soup base/brodo:
  • 1/4 C. olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
  • 2 large onions, chopped
  • 2 C. dry white wine
  • 2 C. tomato puree
  • 4-6 tomatoes, peeled, seeded, coarsely chopped or 1 medium can drained Italian
  • 4 C. clam juice or fish broth
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 tsp. dried thyme or 1 tsp. fresh
  • julienne rind of 1/2 lemon
  • 1/4 C. chopped parsley
  • 1/2 tsp. dried oregano or 1 tsp. fresh marjoram or both
  • 1/4 C. wine vinegar
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 tsp. saffron threads, crushed and combined with 2 T. hot water, set aside until needed
  • 6 T. parsley, chopped for garnish


Prepare the fish:
An hour or two before you are ready to cook wash all of the fish and shellfish under cold running water and rub it with a little olive oil, fresh chopped basil, fresh orange or lemon zest/rind, a pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper. Refrigerate until needed.

Prepare the brodetto:

Choose a large Dutch oven, or a fairly wide casserole fitted with a lid that will hold all of the fish and shellfish after they have opened (or after the soup base is made, divide it into 2 casseroles). Add the olive oil and over medium heat sauté the onions until slightly tender, about 6 minutes. Add the wine and cook until one half has been evaporated. Add the clam juice, tomatoes and tomato puree. Bring to a boil then simmer over low heat for 15-20 minutes. Add the garlic, bay leaves, thyme, lemon rind, parsley, oregano and wine vinegar. Taste for salt and pepper and correct seasonings. Add the saffron infusion.

Add the periwinkles and cook for about 10 minutes. Cut the lobster and crab into pieces and add to the broth. Cook about 5 more minutes, and then add the clams and mussels (or they may be cooked separately in a covered sauté pan drizzled with olive oil until they have opened, and added at the end with their juices). Add the fish and cook for about 5 minutes. Add the shrimp, cook about 3 minutes and lastly add the squid. Turn off the heat and let the casserole sit covered for about 3-5 minutes for all of the flavors to blend together. Remove and discard the bay leaf, correct the seasonings for salt and pepper or even an added splash of vinegar if you think it needs some acidity. Discard any clams or mussels that have failed to open. Serve at once.

First published in the “The North End News” June 8, 2007