Friday, May 4, 2012

Fish Soup

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that there are more variations on zuppa di pesce (fish soup) in Italy than there are fish in the sea. Many restaurants won’t list zuppa di pesce on their menus. They will call it by its regional name, thereby differentiating it from all other, invariably inferior, fish soups. Brodetto, buridda, quadaru, guazzetto, cacciucco, ciuppin are just a handful of the more commonly used names. But, all told, it’s just fish soup!

With the sheer variety of fish on offer in the country, coupled with regional, provincial and town loyalties, everyone thinks that they hold the secret to the best fish soup. It’s a subject of much heated debate. Italians not only argue about how best a fish soup should be cooked, in places they even argue about how it’s spelled! In Livorno in northern Tuscany the local variation of fish soup, cacciucco, is spelled with 5 ‘C’s. Travel just a few miles further down the coast and it’s often spelled with just 4 ‘C’s. Some say this is a deliberate slant designed to irritate and provoke the neighbours – and it works!  

The one broad generalization that can be made about all fish soups in Italy is that they are a legacy of Italian cucina povera – poor people’s food or peasant food. In its original form, fish soup would always have been made with a variety of different fish, sometimes up to 13 types, and with fish of less commercial value. Most fish soups were the creation of fishermen who would sell the more prestigious fish and use what was leftover to make a soup.

Recipes abound. In Sicily it’s often made with capers and olives. In Liguria, herbs and pine nuts are often added. In Romagna, peas are used and it is made sometimes with tomatoes and sometimes without. Italians can and do argue passionately over who makes the best fish soup – I’ve witnessed this on more than one occasion. The fact of the matter is there is no secret ingredient and there are no hard-and-fast rules. 

My advice is simply to use the best fish available – and by that I don’t mean expensive, I mean the freshest! The key in the cooking is to add the fish, in sequence, according to cooking times. Again, depending on the type of fish used, the cooking time will vary – so it does require a little experimentation. However, although the dish may look elaborate, like all good Italian food it’s actually very simple. 

Fish Soup
Zuppa di pesce

Serves 4
Preparation time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes

700g fish pieces (such as sea bass, scorpion fish, shark, monkfish, sea bream)
10 prawns
6 squid
500g mussels (already cleaned)
350g clams (already cleaned)
250ml finely chopped plum tomatoes
100g fresh peas
150ml dry white wine
2 garlic cloves
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley

For this recipe you will need a saucepan large enough to fit all the fish and shellfish with a tight fitting lid.  Begin by cleaning and preparing your fish – discarding any mussels or clams with broken shells. Cut the larger fish into pieces (not too small) and rinse under cold water.  

Heat the olive oil gently in the pan and infuse with the garlic (either left whole or crushed depending on taste).  Next add the fish pieces and the squid, which has been roughly chopped.  Cook these for a few minutes until just turning brown. Next add the white wine and allow this to evaporate for a minute.  Then add the tomatoes and peas and continue to simmer for about five minutes. Finally add the mussels, clams and prawns, cover with the lid and cook for 2-3 minutes. When all the shells have opened the fish is cooked. Finish by adding the chopped parsley.  Serve immediately with bruschetta or crusty ciabatta bread.


  1. I used to live in Gulf of Florida and got fresh fish very often and now I reside inland and I do miss it. You are lucky to have access to all that wonderful seafood. I do not doubt that this tastes pretty amazing. Great photos here also! Enjoy the weekend.

  2. Hi Tina. You must have been spoiled for choice living in the Gulf of Florida! I lived in the States for a time and the seafood was always excellent. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Oh, this soup sounds fabulous! Living in the land locked Midwest US, fresh fish isn't always plentiful. For the right occasion, I will have to splurge and try's the sort of thing I love to order when I dine out :)

  4. Hi Lizzy. Italians always make an occasion of eating fish. This dish shouldn't cost the earth but it is nonetheless fantastic - and so simple. So the next time you get your hands on a nice mix of fresh fish, give it a try, you'll love it!

  5. I love fish Mario. I have fond memories of shelling prawns with my grandmother who lived in a coastal town in northern NSW (Australia). My grandfather also had a boat and we went on the occasional trip with him when he was trying to catch 'dinner'. I once had some gorgeous mussels in La Spezia.

  6. Australians are utterly spoiled when it comes to fish... and I know what you mean, there's nothing like catching your own dinner! I used to go fishing with my father when I was younger. We'd catch a half dozen mackarel and my mother would barbecue them on the beach. Fond memories.