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A gastronomic journey through traditional Italian fish soups

Fish soup is a dish that describes the whole of Italy: from the coasts of the South to the waters of the North, with traditions, stories and recipes that are all different, all delicious.

As with pasta, the panorama of Italian soups, in their infinite regional variations, is rich, intense, and rooted in history and in local products.

But if we were to focus on all Italian soups, we would really have to write a book: so why not head for the fish soups alone, that can be enjoyed even in summer?

Here are the best fish soup options around Italy and, of course, our selection of where to try them. 

First, how does fish soup come about? As simple as can be, fishermen, when they couldn’t sell all the fish they caught, would cook it, putting together what they had with some leftover bread and seasonings. And this is the reason for the so many variants.

Brodetto, king of the Adriatic

If we are talking about fish soups, we really must start with brodetto, of which there are infinite versions from the north to the south of Italy’s Adriatic coast.

In Friuli, it is called boreto and there are at least three well-known and well-established ones: that of Trieste, where the rocky coastline provides small fish, molluscs and crustaceans; that of Grado, with its sandy coastline, with larger fish like gilthead bream, sea bass and monkfish; and that of Marano, in the lagoon, where larger fish like mullet, octopus and eel are added to the creamy broth made from local yellow gobies.

On the menu: in Marano Lagunare you can stop for a tasting at the Ai Tre Canai restaurant of chef Dal Forno, a cook and former fisherman with a great knowledge of the local catch.

The passion for brodetto on the eastern side of Italy, as we have said, runs through the entire peninsula. Moving south along the Adriatic coastline, we may find Veneto-style brodetto, Romagna-style brodetto (brudèt in the local dialect) or even the many versions from the Marche region. Here, there is Fano-style brodetto, a recipe that gave rise to the Fano International Brodetto Festival, a challenge in which the best restaurants compete against each other with their recipes. But there is also brodetto all’anconetana (we are talking about just a few kilometres from Fano, and this is a fierce challenge), in ancient times cooked aboard boats, by fishermen who saved the less valuable fish for themselves, cooking them in an earthenware pot over low heat. This is why brodetto all’anconetana is quite thick and has many varieties of fish. 

In the Marche region, we can also find brodetto in the Recanati version, the San Benedetto version, the Civitanova version and the Porto San Giorgio version. A handful of kilometres and slight variations dictated by what the sea and the characteristics of the coast can offer. What is more local than this?

On the menu: it is worth trying the brodetto – and also the entire menu – that the Cerioni family serves at the Alla Lanterna restaurant in Fano, where not surprisingly the local Confraternita del Brodetto (Brotherhood of Brodetto) often meets.

Abruzzo, a region further down the coast, is no less impressive with its brodetto from Vasto: tradition here dictates that the fish should never be stirred in the pan, but lightly shaken with the whole pan. James Bond would be proud. 

To challenge Vasto, Abruzzo brings the brodettos of Pescara, Termoli and more.

One of the main characteristics of brodetto is that, as you move southwards, the liquid part of the soup decreases, drying out and becoming simpler and simpler.

The Tyrrhenian specialities

Scavalchiamo velocemente gli Appennini e spostiamoci sul lato Ovest d’Italia, verso la Liguria. Qui, non possiamo certo esimerci dall’assaggio di un classico Ciuppin ligure, che è tutto ciò che non ti aspetti da una zuppa di pesce. Infatti, non è proprio corretto definirlo una zuppa, essendo un passato di pesce.

Simbolo della Riviera di Levante, prende il suo nome probabilmente da suppin (ovvero zuppetta), preparata per sfruttare quei pesci di scoglio con molte spine, quindi poco amati ma sempre reperibili e abbondanti, come trigliette, piccoli scorfani e simili. Oggi è tra i piatti simbolo della zona, che ha in Sestri Levante la capitale culinaria. Qui si utilizzano pesci di piccola taglia quali boghettine, trigliette, nasellini, occhiatine, scorfanetti, ma la ricetta varia in base a ciò che il mare ogni giorno offre. 

Let’s quickly cross the Apennines and move to the western side of Italy, towards Liguria. Here, of course, we cannot avoid tasting a classic Ligurian Ciuppin, which is everything you would not expect from a fish soup. In fact, it is not quite correct to call it a soup, as it is a fish stew.

A symbol of the Riviera di Levante, it probably takes its name from suppin (‘soup’), prepared to use those rocky fish with many bones, which are therefore not much appreciated but always available and abundant, such as red mullet, small redfish and similar. Nowadays it is one of the flagship dishes of the area, which has its culinary capital in Sestri Levante. Here, small fish are used, for example bogues, mullet, small hake, saddled seabream, and redfish, but the recipe varies according to what the sea offers every day. 

On the menu: try it at Da O’ Vittorio in Recco (a historic restaurant, famous for its focaccia), if you want a high-level environment with an original menu.

Moving on to neighbouring Tuscany, we need to mention Italy’s most famous fish soup, cacciucco. This typical Livorno soup has well-defined elements (the traditional recipe calls for 13 different types of fish) and a strict specification summed up in the Five Cs in its name: Characteristic, Classic, Cooked with Care and Competence.

This traditional dish has – in addition to its gastronomic value – also an importance tied to its high social value, since one of the legends has it as the symbol of the city of Leghorn, composed of a fascinating amalgam of diverse communities: Jewish, Armenian, Greek, Levantine, German, Portuguese, French, Anglican, and Dutch. The fusion of these cultures is all represented in this iconic dish. Cacciucco has an intrinsic poetry and, of course, should be eaten where it originates: Leghorn.

On the menu: many years ago, the recipe had ‘as thousands of variations as there are ports scattered along the shores of the continents’, but nowadays they are fairly the same. So where to eat a cacciucco worthy of its name and history?

Ristorante Le Volte, Ristorante Le Volte, in front of the Medicean port, offers traditional dishes, including cacciucco with and without bones, served in a lovely setting and, in summer, au dehors with a sea view.

Il Sottomarino, instead, is an old-fashioned trattoria, with generous dishes, retro décor, and a friendly, family-run style of service. This is where the people of Leghorn go to eat cacciucco in all its variations.

The soups of the South, where mussels rule

Moving down the Italian coast to Campania, the ingredients change, and mussels become the main ingredient, culminating in the classic impepata di cozze or mussel soup, which is its absolute sublimation.

Cooking is simple: the mussels are cooked in the pot with their shells on, until they open, and then sprinkled with plenty of pepper. 

There is only one doubt: should the tomato be added or not?

Some add passata (tomato puree), others only fresh cherry tomatoes: the traditional recipe calls for just a little lemon and parsley and toasted bread. Simplicity, in this Neapolitan cuisine speciality, is always the winning ingredient, together with fresh, locally sourced ingredients.

On the menu:  ‘A figlia d’o Marenaro in Via Foria in Naples is one of the very best choices for the mussel soup. Don’t let the modern décor fool you, because the tradition of this place started in 1955 and Assunta Pacifico still carries on the ritual of this dish, from the cleaning of the mussels to the preparation (the recipe continues to be kept secret even from her children who work with her in the restaurant).

For the last stop on this ideal tour of fish soups, we have no choice but to land in Puglia.

The quatàra of Porto Cesareo is a soup with poor origins and a unique preparation: originally it was made directly on the fishermen’s boats or in some cove, in just one copper pot (the quatàra, to be precise): some local extra virgin olive oil, chopped ripe cherry tomatoes and water, half from the sea and half from the spring. The various fish, from the hardest shellfish to the most delicate, like thrushes and mullets, were lowered in a precise order. The procedure, the pot, the cooking: everything becomes a ritual making this soup very special. The uniqueness also comes from the use, according to the most genuine tradition, of discarded fish, what used to be called ‘u pesce iattisciatu’, that is gnawed by other fish: discarded from noble tables but appreciated by wise fishermen because of the special flavour that the ruined, gnawed meat gains at sea, where it is ‘naturally marinated’ in salt water.  

On the menu: everything is excellent at the da Antimo restaurant in Porto Cesareo and the fish is cooked according to recipes handed down from generation to generation since 1957: it is like eating with the family, but with that extra touch of class.

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