Italy's vast coastline provides lots of great opportunities for eating fresh fish, or pesce in Italian. But when you see the Italian menu you may be wondering what kind of fish you'll be getting. Nearly everything that lives in the sea is used in Italian cooking and many of the fish and shellfish you see are not found in the United States. Preparation of seafood in Italy may also be different than what you're used to at home.
How Are Fish and Seafood Served in Italy?
Fish is served in a variety of ways but one of the most common is grilled. If it's a small fish, it will be cooked and served whole, though a larger fish might be offered for two or more people in your party to share. Some restaurants still bring the raw fish to your table before preparation so you can choose what you want and see that it's fresh.
People from the United States are sometimes surprised that the fish they ordered is served to them whole, head and all. Don't worry, often the wait staff will present the whole fish to you and then ask if you want them to debone it. If they don't you can usually ask them to do it for you.
Shrimp, or gamberi, are most often served in the shell, usually with the head still on, and you'll have to take the shells off yourself. Although it may look strange to you, shrimp cooked this way are usually more flavorful. You might also notice on the Italian menu that there are more types of shrimp in Italy than in the United States, including scampi, which are a large, spiny prawn with claws. Clams and mussels, vongole and cozze, are also served in their shells and may be served as an appetizer or in a pasta dish.
Clams are often served in a simple white wine sauce, while mussels are often prepared in a slightly spicy tomato sauce. Shrimp are peeled by hand, while clams and mussels can usually be detached from their shells with a fork.
Most of Italy's regions border the coast and each region has its own specialty seafood stew or seafood pasta but a common pasta dish for seafood lovers is spaghetti allo scoglio, or reef spaghetti, made with a variety of shellfish.
Another item you may not be used to seeing is octopus, polpo, which is served in many places along the coast, usually as tentacles grilled or as a warm appetizer, often with potatoes.
Dining on Fish in Italy
Be aware that fish and shellfish in Italy are often more expensive than other menu items. If a menu lists a fish priced by the etto, or per hundred grams, ask how many etti your fish might be, or just ask how much it will cost. Many restaurants offer set price menus entirely of fish, where every item, from appetizer to entree (but not dessert!), is fish or seafood. Also, some restaurants that specialize in fish will offer only a limited number of non-fish dishes.
Learn the Names of Fish in Italian:
So, just what are all these fish you'll find in Italy? One good way to learn about the fish is to go to the local fish market. You'll get to see the fish up close and personal and find out which fish are local. The fish may be labeled, so you'll see the Italian names for fish you may recognize, such as flounder (platessa), tuna (tonno) or cod (merluzzo). Salmone is salmon (that's an easy one), persico is perch and spigola is sea bass.
Eating in Italy - Buon Appetito
Eating in Italy is a great experience and a good way to enjoy the culture and regional specialties of the country. You'll get the most out of your Italian dining experience if you remember that eating in Italy may be different than eating in your home country. Try to make the most of the new experiences!