Why It Works
- A long, 72-hour soak in several changes of water guarantees that the salt cod fillets won't be too salty.
- A mixture of flour and cornstarch mixed with vodka and sparkling water limits gluten formation, producing a crispier crust.
Nobody has ever accused Roman cuisine of being too light. With its famous permutations of pasta, guanciale, and cheese, and the vast catalogue of hearty quinto quarto—offal—dishes, there’s very little chance that you’ll leave a meal in the eternal city feeling peckish. But that doesn’t mean that there’s any slacking in the snacking department either. Bakeries help tide people over until lunch time with pizza bianca and pizza rossa, while pastry shops and coffee bars peddle rich pastries like maritozzi, brioche buns filled with lightly sweetened whipped cream. In the afternoon and evening, pastry shops cede control of the city’s sweet tooths to gelaterie, and bakeries hand over the savory snack reins to pizza al taglio shops, the Roman equivalent of slice shops, until dinner time, when the sit-down, wood-fired pizzerie open.
Snackin' on Fritti
Along with pizza, both types of pizza establishments usually serve fritti, a category of fried snacks that includes supplì al telefono, Rome’s answer to Sicilian arancine; potato croquettes; fiori di zucca, battered, squash blossoms stuffed with anchovy and mozzarella; and filetti di baccalà, or fried salt cod fillets. While none of these breaded, battered and deep-fried morsels are light, per se, for the most part they're very shareable and easily transportable, drinking snacks that work particularly well as pre-pizza amuse-bouche. Filetti di baccalà are the exception; even by Roman standards, they are substantial.
What are Filetti di Baccalà?
The easiest way to describe filetti di baccalà is “extra salty British-style battered fried fish.” Salt cod fillets are soaked in water for days to rehydrate and soften the flesh, while also tempering its salinity. The pieces of fish are coated in a light batter made with flour and sparkling water (no beer here, but sometimes an egg makes its way into the mix) and fried until crisp and golden. The pre-fry soaking period leaves the baccalà well-seasoned, with a flaky but distinctively firm texture that stands up nicely to the crunch of the batter. A squeeze of fresh lemon juice is all that’s needed to season the fish.
The comparison of Roman fried baccalà to British fish and chips may seem like a bit of a stretch, but both dishes were likely brought over by Sephardic Jews who migrated from the Iberian peninsula. The Norman conquest of Southern Italy at the turn of the second millennium CE had introduced the region to dried cod, known as stoccafisso in Italian, or stockfish. But it wasn’t until the end of the 15th century that salted dried cod began to appear on the Italian peninsula, which is also the period when Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal, the salt cod epicenters of the world.
Nowadays in Rome, filetti di baccalà are mostly served as an appetizer at sit-down pizzerias that are equipped with deep fryers to handle the fish-frying, and their wood-burning ovens cranking out pizzas help to mask the smell of the fish-frying. Pizza al taglio shops generally don’t make battered fritti like squash blossoms or salt cod, because they have a very short shelf life, while breaded supplì and croquettes can sit for a bit under a heat lamp without losing their crunch. I love a good piece of fried fish, but I generally prefer to pregame a pizza with a half-dozen olive ascolane, meat-stuffed deep-fried olives. When I want a filetto di baccalà, I head over to Dar Filettaro a Santa Barbara, a stone’s throw away from the historic Jewish ghetto. If we stick with the fish-and-chips comparison, it's like a Roman chippy: It serves fried salt cod, and that’s about it. You can get a puntarelle salad with anchovies, when puntarelle are in season, and cold mediocre wine on tap. It’s the perfect pre-dinner meal.
Filetti di Baccalà at Home
Making filetti di baccalà at home is quite simple, but here in the US it requires some advance planning because of the required soaking. (In Rome, salt cod vendors often have tubs of baccalà already soaking so that customers can cook with it as soon as they bring it home.) You need salt cod fillets, but actual fillets, not little belly and tail-end scraps that a lot of places try to package up in cute little wooden boxes. Those pieces are great for making brandade, but they won’t work here. Soak the salt cod—after several rounds of testing, I settled on a three-day soak, which is enough time to temper the saltiness of the fish without turning it to mush—changing out the water frequently, ideally at least twice a day. After soaking, all that’s left to do is portion it into long strips, batter the strips, and fry them.
For the batter, I employ some of our standard Serious Eats tricks of the trade. Cutting all-purpose flour with cornstarch, using vodka, and taking care not to overmix the batter all help to limit gluten development. Sparkling water and baking powder help aerate the batter, producing tiny bubbles for a light crust. Serve these light and crispy filetti di baccalà as a pre-dinner snack along with some wine, maybe before cooking up a pizza or two, or as the opening salvo in a seafood feast.
- For the Salt Cod:
- 1 pound (455g) skinless salt cod fillets, in large pieces (see note)
- For Frying:
- 2 quarts (2L) vegetable oil, for frying
- 1 cup (4 1/2 ounces; 130g) all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup ( 2 1/2 ounces; 70g) cornstarch
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (210ml) chilled sparkling water
- 1/4 cup (60ml) vodka
- Kosher salt
- Lemon wedges, for serving
Three Days Before Frying, for the Salt Cod: Rinse salt cod under cold running water until any salt on its surface is washed away. Transfer to a large container and cover with fresh water. Refrigerate for 72 hours, changing the water several times during that period, ideally at least twice a day. (Longer soaking will temper the saltiness of the fish, but keep in mind that salt cod will and should always be somewhat salty.)
Drain salt cod, rinse under cold water, and pat dry with paper towels. Using a sharp knife, portion fillets into pieces that are 6 inches long, and 1 1/2 to 2 inches wide (it’s fine if pieces are slightly smaller or larger).
When Ready to Cook, for Frying: Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 200°F (95°C). Set a wire rack inside a rimmed baking sheet and line with paper towels. In a large Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat to 375°F (190°C).
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk together flour, cornstarch, and baking powder until well-combined. Add sparkling water and vodka and, using chopsticks, stir until a batter just forms. Don’t over-mix; a few lumps of flour are fine.
Add half of the salt cod to batter. If you have a mixture of thick fillets and thin tail pieces, keep them separate and batter the thick fillets first. Submerge pieces to evenly coat them in batter. Working with one piece at a time, lift cod from batter, allowing any excess batter to drip back into the bowl, and carefully add to hot oil, lowering it gently from as close to the oil’s surface as possible to minimize splashing; repeat with remaining battered pieces of cod. Fry cod, turning occasionally, until batter is golden brown and crisp on all sides, 5 to 6 minutes for thin tail pieces, 7 to 8 minutes for thick fillets. Using a spider skimmer or slotted spoon, transfer cod to prepared wire rack, season very lightly with salt, and transfer to oven to keep warm.
Skim any browned bits of batter from oil and discard. Return oil to 375°F (190°C), and repeat steps 5 and 6 with remaining cod. Transfer to a serving platter lined with parchment or butcher paper and serve immediately with lemon wedges.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The salt cod needs to be soaked three days in advance. The fried fillets are best enjoyed immediately.