In a recent episode of Stanley Tucci’s “Searching For Italy,” when he was on the Tuscan coast that borders Liguria, he ate a seafood stew called cacciucco, prepared by chef Fabbio Picchi, who owns the restaurant Cibreo in Florence. Picchi followed the cacciucco with a pasta dish tossed in the leftover sauce after the seafood had been polished off. Here I am, chatting with Picchi on a trip to Florence when travel to Italy was relatively easy.
The dishes he prepared and that show in general, had me dreaming about going back to Italy. Since that’s not possible in this pandemic, I had to do the next best thing — cook something like it at home that might transport me for a little while to la bell’Italia. Having just returned from a vacation in the Caribbean where I ate seafood every day, I felt driven to keep up the seafood vibe and decided to make cioppino – an Italian American seafood dish with origins in San Francisco that is similar to cacciucco. So many cultures have versions of seafood stews, and aside from cacciucco, Italy also lays claim to brodetto, a fish stew from the Abruzzo region, that’s slightly less soupy and tomato-y than cacciucco or cioppino, and is cooked in a clay vessel. I helped prepare this brodetto several years ago while on a trabocco (small wooden fishing piers that jut into the Adriatic) along Abruzzo’s coastline. To read more about trabocchi, click here.
To make the cioppino, start by softening the vegetables in olive oil — onion, garlic, celery, carrots, green pepper and some fennel.
Next add the tomatoes, white wine and seasonings. Be very generous with the basil and parsley. You can make this in a Dutch oven, or in a more shallow pan, like this one. This recipe includes seafood amounts for two very generous servings, but intentionally makes enough sauce for a whole lot more. After we scarfed down all the seafood the night I made this, there was still plenty of leftover sauce to serve over pasta the next day.
After the sauce has simmered for about aan hour, add the shellfish and the rest of the seafood. You don’t have to use the same amounts or types of seafood I did. It’s a very fluid recipe and you can substitute whatever you like and eliminate whatever seafood I’ve included that you don’t like. I used cod but haddock or halibut would be great too. The cost of all this seafood can get a little pricey, but it’s a delicious splurge and would be perfect for a Lenten Friday (or Christmas Eve). Put the shellfish in after you’ve put the rest of the seafood in, to try to keep them from getting submerged too much and hinder their opening. Place the lid on the pot and keep it at a simmer for 15 minutes, without checking or removing the lid.
After 15 minutes, check to see if the fish is cooked through. If not, put the lid back on for a few more minutes until everything is cooked properly. Some of the clams and mussels might still be closed, so put those aside in a separate pan and place it over a low heat by itself, while you portion out the cioppino, either in the pan where you cooked it, or in a tureen, gently lifting the seafood. The cod will easily fall apart unless you use a large spoon to scoop it up whole.
Serve in bowls with crusty toasted bread, smeared with olive oil and salt, or over polenta.
I made some homemade pasta to toss with the leftover sauce. It was perfect for the next evening’s meal. If I can’t have Italy right now, at least I can have pasta and cioppino!
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- The amounts for the seafood are for two very generous servings. If you add more seafood to serve more people, you don't need to increase the amount of sauce. This recipe provides enough sauce for at least three or four more servings. In fact, after we had eaten all the seafood from the Cioppino one night, my husband and I used the leftover sauce the next day and served it over homemade pasta, and there was still plenty of sauce left in the pan that I didn't use.
- ¼ cup minced onion
- ¼ cup green onion, chopped
- ¼ cup celery, minced
- ½ of a large fennel bulb, sliced roughly
- ½ medium carrot, peeled and shredded
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 3 T. olive oil
- 1 26.46 oz. box of finely chopped tomatoes
- 1 26.46 oz. box of strained tomatoes
- (or use all strained tomatoes, or all finely chopped tomatoes if you prefer)
- 1 cup dry white wine
- ½ cup water (use it to swish out any remaining bits of tomato from the tomato box, jar or cans you use).
- 1 teaspoon dried basil
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- a sprinkle of red pepper flakes
- ¼ cup fresh basil, minced
- ¼ cup fresh parsley, minced
- ½ pound halibut, cod or similar fleshy white fish
- ½ pound fresh shrimp
- ½ pound fresh scallops
- 6 squid bodies, cut into "rings"
- a dozen mussels
- a dozen and a half clams
- Sauté onion, green pepper, celery, carrot, fennel and garlic in olive oil in a large Dutch oven or pan until limp.
- Stir in the tomatoes, tomato sauce, basil, bay leaf, parsley, salt, black pepper and red pepper flakes.
- Heat to boiling and add the white wine.
- Reduce heat to a simmer.
- Simmer one hour, then discard the bay leaf.
- Cut the cod, or whatever white fish you're using, into two large pieces.
- Scrub the clams and mussels thoroughly, removing any "beard" from the mussels.
- Cut the squid into rings, and shell and devein the shrimp.
- Add the clams and the mussels to the pan, then add the rest of the seafood to the tomato sauce -- the squid, the shrimp, the scallops and the cod.
- Put the lid on and let everything cook together at a simmer for 15 minutes, WITHOUT STIRRING and WITHOUT LIFTING THE LID.
- If you stir, you will break up the codfish, which flakes apart easily when cooked.
- Check it after 15 minutes and if the fish is all cooked, serve the cioppino in the pan you cooked it, or remove it gently to a serving tureen.
- If some of the shellfish haven't opened, let them continue cooking in a separate pot, which should take only a few more minutes.
- Sprinkle with parsley and serve in bowls with plenty of toasted crusty bread smeared with olive oil and salt, or over polenta.