The traditional zuppa di pesce that you most likely encountered in Italian-American restaurants, was based on garlic and tomato sauce, which was simmered along with assorted fish to make a savory dish. Sometimes the sauce was used to dress pasta and the shellfish and fin fish would be enjoyed as a second course. This version is more in a brodetto style, lighter and clearer than the traditional version, with saffron as a flavoring ingredient. This kind of preparation can be found with slight variations along the entire coast of Italy from Liguria to the Adriatic coast to the heel, Puglia, and the Islands of Sicily couscous.
I have given you the recipe with fish filet, although traditionally zuppa di pesce is made with slices of whole fish with bones and skin intact. But it is tricky to eat that way even though the flavor is more complex.
- For the soup base:
- 2 quarts water
- One 28-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes (preferably San Marzano) and their liquid, plus more if needed
- 1½ cups dry white wine
- 2 small leeks, white parts only, trimmed, cleaned and cut into 3-inch lengths (about 2 cups)
- 2 medium carrots, trimmed and sliced thick
- 1 large onion, cut into thick slices
- 10 sprigs fresh thyme
- Zest of half a lemon, removed in wide strips with a vegetable peeler
- ½ teaspoon loosely packed saffron threads
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- To prepare the soup:
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 8 garlic cloves, peeled
- 2 small leeks, white parts only, trimmed, cleaned and sliced ½-inch (about 2 cups)
- 2 leeks, white and light green part only
- 1 large onion, sliced thin
- 4 medium calamari (about 1¼ pounds), cleaned, tentacles left whole, bodies cut crosswise into ½-inch rings
- 18 medium sea scallops (about ½ pound)
- 8 ounces fresh firm-textured fish fillets, such as salmon, snapper or swordfish, skin removed and cut into 1-inch pieces
- 12 large shrimp, peeled and deveined (about ½ pound)
- 24 mussels, preferably cultivated, cleaned
- 2 cups Braised Cannellini Beans optional
- ¼ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
- Pan-Fried Garlic Bread or crusty Italian bread
- freshly ground black pepper
Make the soup base: Combine the water, tomatoes, wine, leeks, carrots, onion, thyme, lemon and saffron in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a lively simmer and cook until reduced by about one-third, about 45 minutes. Stir in ¼ olive oil, season the mixture lightly with salt and continue to simmer until the liquid portion of the soup base is reduced to about 8 cups, about 20 minutes. Strain the soup base into a 3-quart saucepan and keep it warm over low heat. Discard the solids. (The soup base may be prepared up to 3 days in advance and refrigerated.)
If you have prepared the soup base in advance, bring it to a simmer in a medium saucepan. Adjust the heat to very low and keep warm. Heat ¼ cup olive oil in a large (about 8-quart) heavy pot over medium heat. Add the onion, leek and garlic and cook, stirring, until the onion is wilted but still crunchy, about 4 minutes. Add the calamari and cook, stirring, until they turn opaque, about 2 minutes. Pour in all but 1 cup of the hot soup base and bring to a boil. Stir in the scallops, fish fillets and beans. Adjust the heat to simmering and cook until the seafood is barely opaque at the center, about 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, add the mussels to the soup base remaining in the saucepan. Increase the heat to high, cover the saucepan and steam over medium heat, shaking the pan occasionally, until the mussels open, about 3 minutes.
Stir the shrimp, parsley and steamed mussels into the large pot of soup. Simmer until the shrimp is cooked through, about 1 minute. Check the seasoning, adding salt, if necessary, and pepper. Ladle into warm soup bowls, passing a basket of the bread of your choice separately.