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An Italian Meal: Part 4 - Fish

An Italian Meal: Part 4 - Fish
Eddie Jacob
Given its long coastline, two islands (Sicilia and Sardegna) and numerous lakes, Italy certainly isn’t short of fish. The widespread love of hunting and foraging means it’s difficult to find an accessible stretch of water without people fishing. If your Italian is up to it, try to find out what they’re hoping to catch. They’ll probably be wary of divulging secrets, but you may get a hint of what is worth trying at the local osteria. I once spent a delightful hour with an old man, busy slamming squid against the rocks (to tenderize them) on the beach at Torre Canne. He talked me through his favourite squid dishes and then invited all of us back to his house to share the feast. Alas we had other commitments.

It’s no surprise that those who have been brought up on the lakes or the coast are enthusiastic fish eaters. Michele Matera for example, who runs a delightful fish restaurant, Osteria Corteinfiore, in the quaint and affluent port of Trani on the Adriatic coast of Puglia. A keen sailor he’s fervently vocal on the health benefits of a fish-heavy diet, “If you were to eat nothing but meat for six months, you’d be begging to stop, but I’ve never heard anybody want to stop eating fish. It’s just so good. Fish eaters never have any problems in life.” A bold claim perhaps, but such is his conviction. Then of course, there are more self-serving and immediate benefits: “I eat loads of raw fish with vegetables, because I can get away with eating kilos and it never shows!” Significantly harder to dispute.

Even though the fishing boats at Trani almost dock on his doorstep, Michele doesn’t buy all his fish from them. “Every fish market has its own specialties,” he explains. “Trani has very good fish but I buy my sea bass from Manfredonia or Bari and the best scampi come from Molfetta.”

In fact if you take a walk along the
An Italian Meal: Part 4 - Fish
Eddie Jacob
picturesque Trani port early in the morning you’ll probably be entertained by the demonstrative gesticulating, and emotional negotiating between returning fishermen and potential buyers. But the dismissive comments on the daily catch that the buyers make while haggling, are nothing compared to the scathing remarks sea fish aficionados often make about the “muddy” taste of lake fish.

Silvia Fiorentini, co-owner of the charming and relaxed Vinolento in Castiglione del Lago on Lake Trasimeno doesn’t harbour such prejudices. But then she was brought up lakeside, so sees the bounty offered by her home stretch of water as being a gift to her as a chef. A former actress, she dramatically summarises: “It’s like fishing in culinary tradition and putting your catch on the table.” She doesn’t believe there is anything negative about lake flavours and will skillfully enhance, but not mask them. Keen on strong and simple tastes, she’ll add “aromatic lemon rind to the elegant perch and end up with a very effective combination.”

But what about those chefs who were brought up on the coast but then moved inland? Sicilian chef Angelo Zarbo for instance, has lived in landlocked Umbria for the past decade. As much as he loves the buzz of Perugia, he becomes quite wistful when remembering the coast. “The sea has always been a big inspiration for me. Although I’m now quite a distance from it, it remains so.”

Angelo has worked hard to build up good relationships with fish suppliers to ensure that his fish is not only fresh but top quality. What he, and all restaurants in Italy are obliged to do is to indicate on the menu if produce is frozen. It’s a rule that enables diners to make an informed choice.

Lots of regulars at Angelo’s restaurant, L’Opera, look forward to one of his fish dishes because it’s a treat that they just wouldn’t prepare at home. “I’m thrilled that people in Umbria have started to request more fish. There’s been a notable increase in the time that I’ve been here.”

Turbot, brill and John Dory are Angelo’s favourites but currently the most popular dish on his menu is Tuna in a Sesame Crust, and I can vouch for how good it is. Angelo is diplomatic when asked about the differences between sea and freshwater fish: “The difference is huge. There’s no question that freshwater fish are much more limiting. Sea fish have much more flavour and they excite me a lot more.”

I detect his willingness to do justice to freshwater fish though, and maybe his acclaimed Smoked Eel with Sweet and Sour Sauce is the middle ground. Since eels are both sea and freshwater fish perhaps this is a step towards bringing both sides together.

Osteria Corteinfiore
Via Ognissanti 18
70059 Trani
+39 088 350 8402

Via Vittorio Emanuele, 112
06061 Castiglione del Lago
+39 075 952 5262

Via della Stella, 6
06123 Perugia
+39 075 572 4286

An Italian Meal: Part 4 - Fish
Eddie Jacob
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5 July 2009
By: Joan Ransley
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