At the Taste of Cincinnati this past weekend, the longest running Food Festival in the United States, I became a fan of a dish new to me. It’s an Italian-American fish stew called Cioppino, as presented by Via Vite Italian Bistro. The Chef told me it’s a dish that was created in the 1880s by Italian fisherman who settled the North Beach Neighborhood of San Francisco, many of whom immigrated from the port city of Genoa.
Originally it was made on the fish boats while out at sea and later became a favorite as Italian restaurants multiplied in San Francisco. Traditionally it’s made from the catch of the day, which on the Pacific coast is typically a combo of Dungeness crab, clams, shrimp, scallops, squid, mussels, and any other fish sourced from the Pacific Ocean. It’s then combined with fresh tomatoes in a wine sauce, and served with buttered, toasted bread – either local San Francisco sourdough or French bread.
The name comes from ciuppin, a word in the Ligurian dialect of Genoa, meaning “to chop.” This describes the method of preparation of the stew – that is, chopping up the leftovers of the day’s catch. As it turns out Ciuppin is the name of a classic soup from Genoa, similar to cioppino, but less tomatoey, and using the local Mediterranean seafood cooked until it’s falling apart. Cioppino is also similar to other regional fish soups in Italy like cacciucco from Tuscany, brodetto from Abruzzo, and even coastal Mediterranean dishes like bouillabaisse from Provence, and suquet de peix from Catalan-speaking coastal Spain.
Via Vita’s version was deep, rich and tomatoey, with the most tender rings of calamari, lump crab and a nice hunk of salmon. Theirs was served with a French bread crustini, not a sourdough toast. The deep tomatoey flavor was what hooked me – most fish stews seem to be cream based, like chowders, served with starchy oyster crackers, black-peppered to high heaven, and sprinkled with sherry. While I do love a good oyster or seafood chowder, there’s something bright in the rich tomatoey flavor of the cioppino as the canvas for fresh Pacific seafood. Alongside a Napa red and maybe a redhead, on an outside table overlooking the Pacific and I think I’d be in heaven.