The words of Sophia from Golden Girls play over and over again in my head. “Picture it, Sicily 1922. An attractive peasant girl who has saved her lira embarks on a glorious vacation. For weeks she frolicks at the seaside resort and enjoys the company of many young men, all of whom adore her.” When I think of the freshest seafood possible and fish crudo in particular I am immediately transported to Southern Italy and I start to dream just like this.
Picture it, you’re laying on the beach of Polignano a Mare. After taking a breathtaking swim in that crystal blue water, you start to become distracted by the pain in your feet from walking across that damned rocky terrain. Just as if you dreamed him up, a perfectly sun-kissed man emerges from the sea. He has a snorkel around his wrist and his hands full of spiny sea urchin. He brings them to his blanket, reaches into his man-bag for a pair of tiny scissors and a loaf of bread. He cuts the ricci open and sea water drips down his fingers. As he enjoys this makeshift 1Euro lunch on the seaside, you’re kicking yourself for not having a chilled bottle of rosato in your beach bag to add to his perfect picnic.
I won’t admit that this scenario hasn’t happened before but it’s certainly the way I like to imagine it. When I find myself day dreaming like this, I throw myself back into the kitchen. With the time I spent in Southern Italy and Sicily especially, I’ve fallen in love with the variety of local seafood. There’s a sort of respect for freshness when landlocked towns will only eat fish on days that a small pescivendolo drives a truck into town, blasts his loudspeaker and announces to the area that he’s here, ready to sell, and what’s available. If you’re headed to outdoor Italian markets for seafood, you want to be one of the first ones there. If the fishmongers actually (yet rarely) have ice on the fish, you want to get there before it melts. You want to buy the good stuff before it’s gone and claim your first dibs.
It’s important to have a fishmonger you trust and you buy from regularly so you get the VIP treatment. Everyone’s got their guy. I only buy homemade bottarga from this guy, our tuna guy is only here on Saturdays, this guy always has something different so it’s worth taking a look, or that lady meticulously cleans the sardines into fillets so I don’t have to. No matter if you’re living in Brooklyn or in Palermo, if you’re looking to buy fresh fish you have to get it from your most trusted source. When it comes to seafood that will be used in any raw preparation, it has to be freschissimo.
40% of the seafood consumed all over Italy comes from the South specifically from Puglia and Sicily. The coastal towns of Puglia from Bari down the Salento and looping around the heel of Italy’s boot have really embraced the art of seafood crudo. They’ve got the good stuff and know how to use it. The Italian word “crudo” means “raw” so you’ll recognize it in prosciutto crudo, carne cruda and the seafood version – pesce crudo. When you see the word crudo on a menu, it means there will be some raw elements there but you’ll have to dig deeper to see what the dish will feature.
I spend most of the year working as a private chef in New York City, specializing in seafood so when I am not in Italy, I opt to use the great seasonal products that we do have here. I’m not usually looking for the things I find abroad like tuna, sardines or those sexy fresh sea urchin I was talking about, but I get my hands on amazing fluke, snapper, scallops and seasonal salmon. I let the seasonality guide me when creating new dishes. There’s nothing better than going to the market without a plan, seeing what is available and making it up as you go along.
Here are my tips for making a fish crudo at home, whether you’re in Seattle or San Vito lo Capo, Melbourne or Mazara del Valo, just keep it simple.
First things first, look for the best quality. Fish crudo dishes are typically served as a small plate or a starter so we don’t need to buy a huge amount of fish from the market. Ask your fishmonger what would be a good choice for a raw dish and they will guide you. Either just stick with the basics and dress the fish with EVOO, sea salt and lemon or you can get more creative. Remember that the seafood is the star, don’t over do it with too many ingredients or intense flavors that hide the true taste of the fish. I like to compliment mine with a few ingredients of different textures, flavors and colors. This is similar to the rules of making ceviche, something acidic, something crunchy, something colorful, and don’t forget to season it! There aren’t really recipes for these dishes but here are a few ideas to get your pesce crudo creative juices flowing until your next trip to the seaside.
Vermillion snapper ceviche, purple daikon radish + pea shoots
Arctic char, cherry pepper and cucumber salad
Sea scallop, blood orange and flowering broccoli