Editor's note: Serious Eats correspondent Carey Jones, eating her way around Italy, will be reporting back from Rome, Bologna, Tuscany, and Puglia.
My mental image of a Southern Italian fishing boat looks something like this:
The seaside town of Molfetta, far down Italy’s eastern coast, has fed off the Adriatic waters for millennia—for most of that time, probably from little wooden boats like these. Records of a fishing village at this site date back as far as the fourth century B.C.; and while Molfetta gained later prominence as a Mediterranean trade hub and manufacturing town, fishing remains a healthy industry. Indeed, throughout the region of Puglia—the heel of Italy’s boot—food production continues to be an anchor of the local economy.
While sunny spring days do bring out solo pescatore, with or without their eight-foot rowboats, modern fishermen have taken to decidedly more seaworthy vessels. Like this one—Pasquale e Cristina, a commercial fishing boat that can brave the open waters for voyages as long as six months… or as short as a single morning, as was my Adriatic adventure.
Named for its owner's two children, both of whom joined us for the trip, Pasquale e Cristina is a mid-sized boat typical of Puglian fishing vessels. Its nets haul in whiting and mackerel, anchovies and sardines, tiny shrimp-like gamberetti and strange, vicious monkfish—as well as squid, octopi, cuttlefish, and any number of other more-or-less recognizable sea creatures, all laid out for our inspection. And later, consumption.
Shielded from the sea breeze, I soon noticed the smell around this incredible display— salty, humid, a bit stale, but hardly fishy at all. The captain nodded. “Fish only smells fishy with time,” he explained. “Fish this fresh never smells like fish.” But we didn’t need to sniff the air to see that these creatures were pulled straight from the sea. Just hours out of the water, the eel still wriggled and the unruly octopi squirmed their way out of overflowing tubs. Even the quiet mackerel, with their sharp teeth and glinting eyes, seemed to stare menacingly back at me.
And fish this fresh, explained our translator and de facto tour guide Mike, hardly needed to be cooked. He plunged a hand into the bucket of gamberetti—tiny shrimp no more than an inch in length—and tossed a few into his mouth. Shells, eyes, antennae, and all. “This is the world’s greatest snack. We’d eat them by the handful when I was a kid.” He tucked a stray antenna back between his lips. “Better than popcorn. Better than potato chips.”
He shook the bucket at me. I plucked a gamberetto from the pile and carefully bit down, with a sharp crack. And though the legs scratched my tongue and the feelers poked out, another firm crunch released the tender flesh inside. It was nothing like I’d expected. Incredibly sweet and just a touch salty, each audible chew unleashing more flavor, the gamberetti were fresher and brighter than any shrimp I’d ever eaten. I chewed carefully and swallowed with a happy sigh.
Mike watched me intently. “Any good?” I grinned and popped three more in my mouth. “Incredible.”
At his urging, I tried the anchovies raw, too, but found these less pleasant—bitter and almost metallic, with an unpleasant aftertaste. For these, and for everything else, I would have to wait for lunch. We wandered upstairs to the sundeck, uncorked the Puglia-made Fiano Greco, and let the biting salt air stoke our appetites. For a seafood feast like this, we'd need every bit of hunger we could muster.
First came the anchovies, or alici, greatly improved by a quick soak in vinegar and a marinade of garlic, parsley, and olive oil.
Then the gamberetti, only made better by a quick pan-fry in olive oil and parsley.
Next came short-cut spaghetti in a fish consommé. Subtle and sweet, the broth added enormous flavor to the pasta, which was cooked separately to keep its starch from clouding the consommé. This was served alongside the first zuppa di pesce, with larger shrimp, mackerel, and cherry tomatoes.
Next up was a rich, garlic-y risotto, with langoustines crawling their way out. However creamy the rice, I knew, there was no cream in the dish itself; per Italian tradition, fish never touches dairy.
Then came another hearty tomato stew, but this time with monkfish, baby clams, mussels, and pesce sciabola, an eel-like scabbardfish.
Fresh sardines were drizzled in olive oil and charred on the grill upstairs...
While the other small fish, anchovies and whiting, were given a quick fry, leaving their skins crunchy and flaky flesh steaming hot and tender.
Baby squid and cuttlefish were given the same treatment, crisping up beautifully in the olive oil.
And just when I couldn't imagine eating another bite, out came curling tentacles of deep purple octopus, hot from the grill and just slightly charred. Smoky and dark, not chewy in the least, it stood up beautifully to a spicy, peppery olive oil that was all the garnish it needed.
With seafood like this, as so often in cooking, the key to a perfect meal is simplicity. Many of these dishes used little more than olive oil, flour and garlic; some didn't even need that. It's nearly impossible to improve upon the fresh, bright flavors of fish pulled straight from the sea. And aboard the Pasquale e Cristina, these wise fishermen didn't need to try.