The Fish Soup That Messes With Italian Tradition
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because what starts as a delicious soup comes with an unexpected surprise.
Italians love big meals, and the sequence of courses is sacred: appetizer, first course, second course, contorno (accompanying veggies or potatoes), fruit and dessert. Messing with this tradition is a cause for raised eyebrows everywhere.
But that’s exactly what happens in the coastal Adriatic town of Vasto, where its renowned fish soup shakes everything up. Why? Because it combines fish and pasta, both of which are considered separate first courses. Essentially, it’s like having a gut-busting double first course. Most Italian coastal hamlets boast their own special fishy broth under various names. However, Vasto’s brodetto (meaning “little broth”) is the best you’ll find. And once the fish soup is in your belly, you might not have room for anything else. Warning: Don’t let it get to that point. I was unbelievably full, but it was certainly worth it.
When the steaming pot of fish soup arrives, you’ll be staring down into the wide, bulging eyes of boiled king prawns, rays, mullets, soles, redfish and scampi.
Eating brodetto is a ritual. Italians have a saying: “Even the eyes must be satisfied first, then the taste buds.” When the steaming pot of fish soup arrives, you’ll be staring down into the wide, bulging eyes of boiled king prawns, rays, mullets, soles, redfish and scampi. The fish are served in the guazzetto style (meaning “splashing around”) in a savory pool of half-ripe tomatoes dubbed mezzotempo, parsley, pepperoni and garlic. The tomatoes are grown between winter and summer, “and without them, brodetto would be watered down,” warns local gourmand Gianfranco Bonacci. The tomato sauce is delicate, unlikely to cause indigestion — it won’t “catch the elevator” going up and down your food pipe, as Italians say. Garlic works to enhance but not overpower the dish. So all you taste is the sea in your mouth.
Eating brodetto is an experience itself. But you’ll need to bring a buddy: You can only order the soup in pairs; restaurants won’t cook it for solo slurpers. It’s served in a huge ceramic bowl, and diners are encouraged to place slices of grilled bread at the bottom, letting it soak in the fishy liquid. But be warned: Too many slices may equal regret. Because just when you think the meal is nearing its end, when you can almost feel the fish swimming around in your belly, the “magic moment” arrives, says Bonacci. This is when thin spaghetti, called capelli d’angelo (angel hair pasta) is unexpectedly tossed into the pot with the remaining sea broth. Ta-da! All courses served as one. (And you have to eat the pasta too, or risk ridicule by the locals. It is a culinary feat, costing around $32 per person.) Combining courses has always been part of the Vasto tradition, says Maria Pia Rossi, a local: “Poor fishermen families tended to eat once a day at dinner, when all generations gathered around a huge pot that contained all courses in one.”
It’s best not to go looking for brodetto when fishing season is over, from September to November. But you might be able to find a restaurant owner willing to serve you a batch whipped up from an illegal night catch. Just place your order about a week prior to your dining date. And don’t tell anyone about it.