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A mix of sea fish served on a slice of bread soaked in a tomato sauce, lightly flavored with chilli and garlic: as simple as it is, Italian fish soup is one of the world's best-loved dishes from this splendid peninsula. And although the basic recipe can be found in various Mediterranean cuisines, only in Italy does it come in so many different regional variations.
Originally a humble, one-course meal, prepared using the less coveted fish left over when everything else had been sold, over the years it has been "souped up", and now often even includes prawns and shrimps. Starting from the Adriatic Sea, we can travel the length of the Italian coast, meeting one fish soup after another: from Trieste's “brodetto”, which traditionally begins by frying the fish, to the Venetian version, which contains a single type of fish from the lagoon, the “go” (a variety of gobi fish). Moving southward into the region of Romagna, we find “il brudèt ad pès”, made with gurnard, and then into the Marches for perhaps the definitive “brodetto di pesce”.
In Apulia fish soup takes the name of the tourist resort of Gallipoli: here the secret lies in diluting the soup with sea water and using at least twenty different types of fish. In Naples, fish soup is subject to strict rules: it must contain scorpionfish, small squid and octopus. The Sicilian version is enhanced with black olives and capers, and in Catania also a handful of soaked raisins, while in Sardinia, the tasty broth used to prepare the fish contains fregola, a type of durum wheat pasta reminiscent of a coarse-grained couscous. In Tuscany the cooks vie for supremacy with their famous “cacciucco alla livornese”: in Livorno it is always served with sage and slipper lobster. Meanwhile in Liguria we can enjoy a “ciuppin”: a tomato-red soup enhanced with a touch of saffron.
Now that we have been right around the Italy, getting up close and personal with its many specialities, here are some pointers to help you prepare an authentic Italian fish soup: how to make fish soup, in its most classic version...
• When you choose your ingredients, don't be deceived: you can make an excellent soup even with the humblest of fish.
• Take care to reduce the wine properly, so that the end flavour is not too acidic.
• The bread must be well toasted to ensure that it does not disintegrate as soon as it starts to soak in the soup: the classic recipe places it in the bottom of the soup bowl, but it can also be served separately.
• The fish should never be cooked for more than a few minutes, and should be added to the soup in stages, from the toughest to the tenderest, never all together.
• Garlic and chilli pepper are two essential ingredients, albeit in moderation.
• Allow the fish to cook in its own steam, and never stir with a spoon. Beware of soups in which the fish is reduced to a pulp: that means it's been reheated.
• Even if it takes longer, always bone all the fish before cooking: your guests will thank you for it.