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“Even grandma’s shoe tastes good fried,” goes an old Tuscan adage that is hard to argue with. “Frittura” in Italian is that magical coating that turns any ingredient – meat, fish, sweets and vegetables – into an irresistible dish only by frying it: and that is why “fritto misto” is one of the best-known dishes in Italian cuisine, especially as made in summer, using recipes varying widely according to where it is made.
By the seaside, “fritto misto all’italiana”, is a plateful of fried golden calamari rings, shrimp and squid tentacles, but in northern Italy – particularly in Piedmont – it is mostly vegetables and, depending on the season, enhanced with semolina, veal brain, brochettes of cheese and prosciutto, sweet cream and amaretti (click here for the full Piedmontese fritto misto recipe). In the Marche, however, the “frittura mista” cannot be called that without the famous olive ascolane filled with finely minced meat, often accompanied by fried semolina, squash blossoms and lamb chops. In Venice, a fritto is a mixture of tiny fried fish in a cone-shaped wrapper. And then there’s Neapolitan-style fritto misto: a fantasy of flavours that includes no fish other than a few anchovies, slices of mozzarella and various seasonal vegetables (cauliflower and artichokes in winter, eggplant and zucchini in summer).
Excellent as an antipasto or quick appetiser, it follows one iron-clad rule for a fritto: it has to be eaten hot. If you’re expecting guests, then, don’t even think about getting a start on cooking your fritto misto too far in advance. So when you order a portion of fritto misto in Italy, never expect the same thing twice.
How to make the best fritto misto
Instead, take into consideration certain factors that point to the quality of what has been prepared, regardless of the ingredient you find fried on the plate.
• The fat. There are more and more oils now made specifically for frying: in general, however, you need one that withstands high temperatures and has a high smoking point (that is, the temperature over which an oil should not be heated so as to avoid releasing toxic substances). The best for this is peanut oil, because it has a high smoking point and a flavour that does not overwhelm the food we fry. Obviously even extra-virgin olive oil can be used, but it has an intense flavour and is too expensive for this use. Another recommendation: don’t be afraid to use plenty of oil, because the less you use the more the fried food will taste “heavy”. The ingredients should float on the surface.
• Before frying, it’s important for the food to be at room temperature and perfectly dry: that way we keep the frying temperature from getting too low and breaking down the fibres. The pieces of food being fried should also all be of the same size for uniform cooking.
• Never add salt before frying: the crust may become detached during the frying – it’s hygroscopic.
• Aside from the fryer, the best thing to use is an iron skillet, because it allows the oil to heat up more gradually, over a wider area, low and with straight sides.
• Temperature is everything. Using a kitchen thermometer, we put the food in to fry when the oil reaches 180 degrees Celsius.
One final tip: never order a fritto at the end of the evening if you’re not sure they’ve changed the oil in the kitchen.