Leghorn-Style Fish Stew

Makes 8 main-course servings

From the Tuscan commercial port city of Leghorn (Livorno), this version is one of Italy's best-known coastal fish stews called Cacciucco. The four-season method lets the variety of market availability direct which fish to use. Typically, a combination of five different fish, shellfish, or seafood should be chosen, one for each "c" in the word cacciucco. What's important is to cook them beginning with the firmest and finishing with the flakiest so as to not overcook. A great dish for entertaining, it should be served with thick slices of grilled bread, soft polenta, or steamed potatoes.

  • 8 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 3 tablespoons pure olive oil
  • 2 1/2 pounds littleneck clams, washed and shells dried
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1 1/2 pounds mussels, washed, beards removed, and shells dried
  • 3 cups Fresh Tomato Sauce (recipe follows)
  • 1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
  • Fine sea salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 pound tuna or swordfish fillet, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1 pound sea bass or mahimahi, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1 pound halibut or flounder, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano
  • Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
  • 2 tablespoons roughly chopped Italian parsley

Lightly crush the garlic cloves and heat them with the pure olive oil in a large sauté pan with a lid over medium heat. When the garlic starts to sizzle, gently shake and tilt the pan so the cloves are immersed and sizzling at one side of the pan in a pool of the oil. As the cloves start to turn golden, lay the pan flat on the burner so the oil covers the entire surface. It is important the clams be dry so they don't flare up because of any water on them when added to the hot oil. Add the clams and immediately cover the pan. Gently shake the pan to roll the clams in the hot oil, then, with the cover slightly ajar, add the wine and immediately cover again. Continue to cook, gently shaking the pan from time to time, until the clams start to open, 5 to 6 minutes. Cooking time will vary depending on the size of the clams and the thickness of the shells. Transfer them with a slotted spoon to a baking sheet to cool. Add the mussels to the pan and cook in the same manner. Their cooking time will be much shorter than for the clams.

Add the tomato sauce and hot pepper flakes to the pan and blend with the residual liquid from the shellfish. Adjust the heat to a steady simmer. When the clams and mussels are cool enough to handle, remove the top shells, being careful to reserve any residual liquid and add it to the sauce. The clams and mussels will be added later in their half shells.

Season the tuna on all sides and add to the sauce keeping enough space between pieces so that the next fish can be placed in between. Adjust the heat so that the sauce remains at a steady simmer. Cook for about 3 minutes, then season and add the sea bass. Repeat the cooking and then do the same for the halibut.

Add the oregano to the pan and place the clams and mussels in the sauce and between the pieces of fish. Do this gently so as not to break the pieces of fish. Gently shake the pan to coat the shell fish with the sauce and create an even layer of seafood in the pan.

Using a large kitchen or serving spoon, divide the fish and shellfish with some of the sauce among warmed pasta bowls or arrange on a serving platter. Drizzle with the extra virgin olive oil and finish with a sprinkle of the parsley. Serve subito (immediately)!

Equipment Note: A 12-inch sauté pan or casserole is best, and remember that a stainless or enameled interior will keep the wine and tomato sauce from creating any off flavor or bitterness.

Entertaining Note: The stew can be made up to an hour before serving. To reheat, bring back to serving temperature over low heat, covered so that the fish does not overcook or fall apart.

Copyright © 2009 by Chef David Shalleck
Adapted from the book Mediterranean Summer by David Shalleck, published by Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc.