With all due respect to gumbo, cioppino is America’s most popular native seafood stew. Cioppino originated in San Francisco in the late 19th century with Italian immigrant fisherman who adapted similar native dishes, such as zuppa di pesce, into a unique tomato-based seafood medley. It has ventured far beyond its humble beginnings to become a staple on restaurant menus all across the country. A New England cioppino simply uses the bounty of North Atlantic seafood in place of Pacific seafood.
When it comes to seafood stews in restaurants only bouillabaisse appears more frequently. But as opposed to bouillabaisse’s more refined reputation as a fancified stew of classical French cuisine, cioppino proudly boasts itself as a dish for the common man. I can hear old school Italian-Americans all over the country, when asked how to make cioppino, answering, “However the $#!% you want!”
My type of people.
It’s a classic “catch of the day” sort of stew, meaning no seafood is discriminated against. Traditionally, whatever came off the boats, was thrown into the stew pot with differing amounts of onions, garlic, tomatoes, wine, fish stock and Italian herbs. Pacific ocean fish of all shapes and sizes, often with their heads and tails attached, and all manner of shellfish and crustaceans such as Dungeness crabs, clams, shrimp and squid, were staples of original dishes.
Recipes vary tremendously.
As cioppino spread beyond San Francisco throughout the 20th century, so did the use of locally available seafood. For a New England cioppino, that means things like quahogs (New England’s iconic hardshell clams), blue mussels, blue crab, Jonah crab, lobster, sea or bay scallops, squid and any North Atlantic fish your heart desires.
Cod and haddock are fine but don’t forget about all the underloved fish that swim in New England waters. Try something new in your New England cioppino! Atlantic mackerel, fluke, porgy, skate, Acadian redfish, black sea bass, blackfish, bluefish, striped bass, sea robin and dogfish would be great choices. Check out this great local New England seafood guide by Eating with the Ecosystem, a Rhode Island-based non-profit dedicated to seafood sustainability.
You can also ask your local fishmonger to recommend something new and in season. They’d love to diversify their selection of fish if the public demanded it. Local fishermen would love it too!
Personally, I love adding a mix of BOTH lean and fatty fish in my New England cioppino and include a pound of each in my recipe. But it’s only a suggestion. Make like a proud Italian and loudly declare, “I’ll add whatever the @$%@ I want!”
In the true spirit of cioppino, that’s exactly the right thing to add.
The classic San Francisco Italian seafood stew made with tomatoes, wine and fresh herbs. A New England cioppino simply uses any type of fresh New England shellfish and fish your heart desires. You can't go wrong with any combination of quahogs (New England's iconic clams), blue mussels, squid, crab, lobster, sea or bay scallops and a mix of both lean and fatty fish.
Though white wine is also a good choice, I opt for red, which pairs well with tomatoes in a stew and adds a deeper, richer flavor than white. Avoid very tannin-heavy full bodied red wines like Cabernet which can leave an acrid flavor. Choose more moderate dry reds like Merlot or Pinot Noir.
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.