Zuppa di pesce, a tomato-based Italian fish soup, probably has as many variations as there are stars in the galaxy. Though it’s called a soup it’s more like a stew and usually also includes a variety of shellfish.
My guess is that zuppa di pesce was the precursor to cioppino, the famous Italian-American seafood stew popularized by Italian fisherman in San Francisco in the late 19th century. Many versions of an Italian fish soup could be called a cioppino and vice versa. Personally, I look at cioppino as more of a true stew, with a greater variety of seafood and slightly richer and thicker than zuppa di pesce. Others might disagree. But semantics aside, the key to making an Italian fish soup that truly stands out is two-fold. The first is your choice of fish. And the second, and most important, is the broth.
I know what you’re thinking…
No sugar Sherlock!
Of course, any fish soup recipe would emphasize those two things. But you’d be amazed how many Italian fish soup recipes do not. Truth be told, you can make a good zuppa di pesce without a truly great broth. Clam juice, even chicken stock or some type of bottled broth can still make a good base with tomatoes, wine and herbs. Cod or haddock, which are the fish of choice in 99% of all fish soup recipes, are more than adequate too.
But I’m not interested in a good zuppa di pesce.
I want an EPIC zuppa di pesce, one that will make me breathe big sighs of satisfaction with every slurp.
Step 1A. Try an alternative to cod or haddock.
Don’t get me wrong. I like cod and haddock. But I don’t really love them in soups. Their light, flaky texture and mild flavor are, in my opinion, better suited for things like fish and chips or recipes with lots of seasoning. Furthermore, cod, as you may know, has been tragically overfished. There are many similar and more sustainable options, including fish that I think are a lot more flavorful.
Take for example, black sea bass.
That’s a beautiful black sea bass I caught on a recent fishing trip on the Long Island Sound.
It’s local to northeast Atlantic waters and has a tender but firm texture with a mild but subtly sweet flavor that is distinct, and, in my opinion, superior to both cod and haddock. Unfortunately, it may not be easy to find outside smaller specialty fish markets. It also has a limited seasonal availability of late summer to late fall. If you can’t find it, pivot to step 1B.
Step 1B. Try a lesser known species of fish.
Any fish can work in a zuppa di pesce! Embrace the incredible diversity of local fish wherever you live. There’s a lot more fish in the sea than cod, haddock, tuna, swordfish and salmon. We are overfishing those species and we need to embrace a wider range of more sustainable choices, of which there are many.
Monkfish, blackfish (also called “tautog”), sea robin, mackerel, porgy (also called “scup”) or dogfish are all excellent choices here in the northeast. They all have their own unique flavor profile and they’d all make delicious choices in any Italian fish soup.
If you can’t find any of those, look for pollock. It’s available year round, is found in most supermarket fish departments, and is the most economical of the traditional New England groundfish (which includes cod and haddock).
2. Make your own fish stock
On my recent fishing trip, which was on a party boat of about 30 people, I’d estimate that about 100 fish were caught. On the ride home from the middle of the Long Island Sound, the deckhands filleted everyone’s catch. Guess how many people also took home the carcass?
Those are the two I brought home. The top one is a blackfish and the bottom one is black sea bass.
I could not help but look with a little disgust at the other 100 or so wasted carcasses that nobody wanted. At the very least, some seagulls ate well that day.
It’s sad that we’ve forgotten how to make homemade fish stock. It’s even easier and less time-consuming that chicken or beef stock. They’re also a great source of nourishment as the heads of fish are rich in many nutrients. Ask your local fishmonger for them. Most are happy to give them to you at around a dollar per pound. Some may even give them to you for free.
And there’s nothing like the flavor of a homemade fish stock with subtle flavors of fennel, lemon, white wine and fresh herbs. You can NOT get those fresh beautiful flavors from a boxed seafood broth in a supermarket. And I say it all the time but a properly made fish stock should NOT TASTE FISHY. It should taste like the ocean, slightly salty, with a delicate background taste of fresh fish and other flavors.
These two things will make your Italian fish soup totally epic. Of course, there’s a little more to it than that. Good quality tomatoes, other shellfish, herbs and spices will work some serious magic with a homemade fish stock too. There’s a reason there are infinite incarnations of this Italian favorite.
So on that note, here’s my contribution to the zillions of zuppa di pesce recipes out there. I keep it pretty simple, with minimal veggies, so as to let the beautiful homemade broth really shine through. Delicious and fresh black sea bass makes it all that much better. Hope you like it!
Zuppa Di Pesce, an Italian fish soup, is a simple but delicious combination of garlic, tomatoes, white wine, fish stock, fresh fish, shellfish and herbs.
Craig Fear is the creator of Fearless Eating and the author of three books, The 30-Day Heartburn Solution, Fearless Broths and Soups and The Thai Soup Secret. After years helping clients with digestive issues, Craig decided to pursue writing full-time. He intends to write many more books on broths and soups from around the world! Click here to learn more about Craig.