On an evening about 25 years ago, I was walking, hungry, around the streets near the harbor of San Fransisco, looking for a restaurant. Crawfish, crabs, king crab, bright red lobster and prawns were offered in large quantities in all possible varieties. But the amazing thing that surprised me was that almost every restaurant publicized their famous specialty: “authentic Italian Cioppino”. I admit my own ignorance because I didn’t know that dish, until then! I was curious and ventured into a few restaurants scanning the menus, realizing that it was referring to a “fish soup”. Even more curious, I took a seat and I ordered the mysterious speciality. After ten minutes, I was faced with an overcooked fish soup covered by a dense and sweet tomato sauce with a crab, half crawfish and three prawns on top of it accompanied by some sweet thick crusts of pseudo-homemade white bread, sort of failed Tuscan bruschetta bread.
Unfortunately, the dense and sweet tomato totally covered the taste of fish, have been cooked for such a long time.
A fish soup is not an easy dish to prepare. A great chef will take into account the different cooking times of each fish and shellfish. One must also consider the quality and quantity of tomato – which shouldn’t be too intense otherwise it will cover the delicate taste of the fish, inexorably disrupting the harmony of the dish.
At the end of XIX Century, mariners from over all Europe crosses the Atlantic and continental America and settled in North Beach, near San Fransisco: Portuguese, French, German, Russian people and a lot of Genoese and Ligurian people from Italy. And with them landed the “cioppino” in California. The different availability of herbs, qualities of tomatoes and fish (like crawfish, crabs and prawns) morphed the poor fish soup recipe, into something more refined by ingredients but with less taste. The word “cioppino” comes from the Ligurian dialect “ciuppin” and means “chopped, torn to pieces”. This unfussy soup was consumed by mariners and port workers in taverns and inns around the Ligurian harbors. Such a soup was prepared with leftover slices rather than the noble fish used today, flavored with garlic, herbs, flavored with white wine and cooked in a light tomato sauce directly on a terracotta crock and served with toasted bread slices. Cioppino may be derived from the word ‘ciupar’, or ‘ciuppar’ (to drench, to dip in Genovese dialect). In this case, it refers to the bread directly drenched into the crock.
Drawn from Fettuccine Alfredo, Spaghetti Bolognaise & Caesar Salad by Maurizio Pelli.
For info: The Culinary Clinic by Maurizio Pelli.