Insalata di polpo (Octopus salad)

Insalata di polpo

When Stefano was a child, he used to fish for polpi (octopuses) in the summer months when his family left the heat of Rome for their little house near the town of Latina along the Tyrrhenian Sea, a subdivision of the Mediterranean.

300px-Tyrrhenian_Sea_mapIf the boys went with their fathers – Stefano’s padre Andrea and uncle Zio Carlo, they took the car.  If not, they rode the 3 kilometers to the sea on their bicycles.

Because octopuses creep and crawl better than they swim, they like to congregate near rocks.  Thus, Stefano and his cousins used to stand on the pier that stretched out over low cliffs and fish for the eight-tentacled creatures.  To catch an octopus, they used a special lure called a polpara, which had a little weighted body surrounded by fish hooks.  The polpara was attached to a line, which they bobbed up and down to catch the octopus’ attention.


When a curious octopus wrapped its tentacles around the lure, they boys pulled the line up to claim their catch.  Back home, Stefano’s mamma, Maria, or his aunt, Zia Elena, cooked the octopus and made a delicious antipasto of insalata di polpo.

Insalata di polpoInsalata di polpo

Here in the land-locked upper Midwest of the United States, we fish for our octopus at the local seafood market, and enjoy the squeals of awe from our friends and family who’ve never handled or eaten this delicious sea creature.

serves 4

Two octopuses, approximately 500 grams or around 1 pound each.
2 carrots, or a handful of baby carrots
2 stalks celery
A bunch of flat leaf Italian parsley
Olive oil
Juice of 2 lemons
1 clove garlic

Insalata di polpoDirections
Place the octopuses and a cork from a recently opened bottle of wine into a large pot of cold water.  If you don’t have a bottle open, this is a great excuse to uncork one!  No-one knows why, but southern Italians swear that a cork in the water renders the octopus more tender.  Bring the water to a boil, and then let boil gently for 20 minutes.  Turn off heat, and allow the octopus to cool to room temperature in the water it was cooked in.

Il polpo si cuoce nell’acqua sua. 

Insalata di polpoIn the meanwhile, dice the carrots and celery finely, and the garlic super-finely.  Chop about 2 tablespoons of flat leaf Italian parsley.  Place it all together into a medium bowl.

Insalata di polpoRemove the octopus from the water and pat it dry with paper towels.  Cut into small pieces, and add it to the bowl.  Cover with extra-virgin olive oil, stir in the juice of one lemon, and salt to taste.  Let sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes for the flavors to express themselves, then serve.

Insalata di polpoInsalata di polpo






Pesce spada al cartoccio

Some Due Spaghetti followers try each of our recipes diligently.  They email questions about ingredients, quantities, and procedures.  They tell us about memories they have of eating those same foods, and sometimes they share their family’s version of them with us.  Other readers just enjoy reading our posts, admiring the photos, learning about Italian food and culture and living vicariously through the blog, which is perfectly fine, too.

If you fall into the latter category, you might, just might, want to give this recipe a try.  It is truly exceptional.  Even if this is the one Due Spaghetti recipe that you ever make, it will be worth it.  It is elegant, pretty, creative, and absolutely delicious.  It can be prepared in advance and kept warm in the oven, making it ideal for a dinner party.  It’s both filling and nutritious.  It’s sure to be a hit with your guests.  What more can we say?  We’ll likely never post a better recipe.

We wish we could take credit for this dish, but we can’t.  We don’t have a story to to tell  about how Stefano grew up eating it, his grandma having taught his mom, who in turn taught us.  Until today, we had actually never even had it before, at least not exactly like this.  We simply came across the recipe in Il cucchiaio d’argento, or The Silver Spoon, Italy’s most authoritative cookbook.  There is a gorgeous full-page photo of it on p. 744 that caught our attention, and we flagged the recipe to try someday.

You see, we love seafood.  Touched by four seas (the Mediterranean, Tyrrhenian, Adriatic, Ionian), it’s not surprising that fish are an important part of Italian cuisine.  Pesce spada, or swordfish, is one of the most prestigious.  There are six different swordfish recipes in Il cucchiaio d’argento, but the recipe pesce spada al cartoccio, featuring swordfish steaks accompanied by fresh clams, mussels, shrimp and the colorful southern Italian mix of tomatoes, yellow bell peppers, red chili peppers, basil and flat leaf Italian parsley, steals the show.

This foto of three fishermen, Daniele, Gaetano and Andrea, can be found on the Italian fishing website, along with the story of how they caught their pesce spada after an entire night of waiting.

The al cartoccio method of cooking fish is healthy and renders the fish incredibly flavorful.  Cartoccio means parcel or pouch in English.  There is not an English phrase to describe this cooking method; we’ve borrowed from the French en papillote.  It means  to wrap the fish in parchment paper or aluminum foil, or sometimes both, and bake it until cooked.  It requires little to no oil, and renders the fish moist, tender and bursting with flavor.

We used a little less oil than the original recipe called for, a little more garlic, and we added a little dry, white wine.  Otherwise, we followed the Cucchiaio d’argento recipe exactly.  Buy the freshest seafood you can find, and the most colorful herbs and vegetables.   It will turn out perfect.

Ingredients for 4
4 swordfish steaks
250 grams (9 ounces) mussels
250 grams (9 ounces) clams
150 grams (5 ounces) raw shrimp, peeled and de-veined
2 medium tomatoes
1 yellow bell pepper
1 red chili pepper (alternatively, crushed red pepper)
1 bunch flat leaf Italian parsley
1 bunch basil
2 cloves garlic
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 dash dry white wine
Salt to taste


Preheat the oven to 400° F (200° C).  Typically, shellfish today comes already scrubbed clean.  However, if yours aren’t, scrub the clams and scrub and de-beard the mussels.  If any clams or mussels are open, shut them.  Discard any that do not shut, or that reopen after you’ve shut them.  Mince the garlic.  Chop the tomatoes coarsely.  Cut the pepper lengthwise into strips 2 or 3 cm. wide.  Chop the chili pepper finely.  Preserve as many of the seeds as you wish – the more seeds you use, the hotter it will be.

Cook the shellfish
Place the garlic and 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a wide saucepan with a lid.  Sauté the garlic in the oil until it turns a golden color.  Pour in a dash of dry white wine, add the clams and the mussels, and cover.  Let the shellfish cook covered over medium until the clams and mussels open up, approximately 4 minutes.  Uncover, turn heat down and let simmer one more minute, and then remove from heat.  Discard any clams or mussels that did not open.  Separate the shellfish from the liquid, preserving both.  Set aside.

Cook the shrimp
Add one tablespoon of olive oil to a new pan.  You will eventually be adding the shellfish, their liquid and the vegetables, so choose a pan that can accommodate these.  Add the shrimp, and cook over medium heat until they turn pink, rotating them so that both side cook.  This will take just a few minutes.  Watch them carefully, turn them as soon as one side is pink, and avoid over-cooking so that they do not become tough.  Add the mussels, clams, yellow pepper, chili pepper, basil and parsley, and pour in the liquid from the shellfish.  Simmer covered for 5 minutes and uncovered for an additional 3 minutes, adding salt to taste.

Sear the swordfish
Add the final tablespoon of olive oil to a skillet and bring it to temperature over medium heat.  Add your swordfish steaks to the skillet, and sprinkle salt on top of them.  Cook for about 3-5 minutes, and then turn, salt the cooked side, and let the bottom side cook for another 3-5 minutes.  The outside will be cooked to a golden sear, but the inside will still be rare.

The final step – preparing the cartoccio
Tear four long, rectangular strips of aluminum paper, each long enough to contain a swordfish steak and the fish topping.  Position the foil lengthwise on a counter top.  Place a swordfish steak in the center of the foil, and top with 1/4 of the seafood.  Bring the long sides of the foil together at the top, and fold one side over the other, creating a seal.  Then, take one end of the foil, carefully fold it over and roll it towards the center of the parcel.  Do the same on the other end, creating a neat foil package.  Place each package onto a baking sheet.  Bake for approximately 10 minutes.

Serving the pesce spada al cartoccio
If helpful, the pesce spada al cartoccio can be left unopened in a warm oven for up to 30 minutes, or perhaps even longer, before serving. When you are ready to eat, place each parcel onto a serving plate, and carefully open the foil up, revealing the delicious seafood inside. Eat the fish right out of the foil, with plenty of crusty bread to soak up the delicious juices. Don’t forget to place an extra dish or two on the table so that your guests can discard their clam and mussel shells.

Download a pdf of the recipe Pesce spada al cartoccio

Calamari con piselli

Thank goodness for seafood!

With the holidays behind us, it’s time to lighten up, eat healthier and drop the pounds we probably added over the last month or two.  But, it’s still cold outside, the days are short and Sunday afternoons at home call for family-style meals.  Seafood-based dishes are the perfect solution – tasty, comforting and healthy.

Calamari con piselli, or squid with peas stewed in tomato sauce, was of a favorite dish of Stefano and his brother and sister when growing up in Rome.  Their mom, Maria, made it often in the winter, using either calamari (squid) or its related cephalopod, seppie (cuttlefish).

Before we begin with the recipe, let’s look more closely at these interesting and delicious sea creatures.  Octopus (polpo in Italian), squid (calamari in Italian) and cuttlefish (seppie in Italian) are three common cephalopods prevalent in southern Mediterranean and Asian cooking.   All cephalopods have bilateral body symmetry and a large head with tentacles attached to it.   They also all have ink sacs and can squirt ink, which is why they are sometimes referred commonly as inkfish.  It is the black colored ink from squid that is used to make squid ink pasta.

In the landlocked Midwest of the United States, cephalopods are not easy to come by.  We were thrilled to fine frozen calamari while out shopping one day, and immediately new that we would stew them in tomato sauce with peas, for a perfect January weekend meal.

2 and 1/2 lbs. squid
Two 28-oz. cans of canned whole tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
3 Tablespoons finely chopped onion
2 cloves garlic
1 bunch parsley
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1/4 cup dry white wine
16 oz. frozen peas
Salt to taste
Black pepper, or if you prefer crushed red pepper

Generally, squid is sold already cleaned.  If your squid is not cleaned, clean it, as explained here.  If your squid is clean, rinse it under running water, removing any skin, sand or bits of tough tissue.  If the tentacles are still attached, remove them.  Pat the squid bodies and tentacles dry with paper towels.

On a cutting board, slice the body, or sac, into rings 1/4th inch to 1/2 inch wide.  Chop the onion and sauté it in the olive oil over medium heat.  Mince the garlic, and add it to the sauté when the onion becomes translucent.  Chop the parsley and add it to the sauté.  Add the tomatoes, passing them through a food mill.  Bring to a boil, and then add the white wine.  Allow it to cook for 10-15 minutes, add salt and pepper to taste, and then add the squid.  Simmer for approximately 30 minutes, add the peas and let the mixture cook for another 5-10 minutes, or until the peas are tender.

Serve in a pasta or soup bowl, with a piece of crusty bread, toasted if you wish.

Download a pdf of the recipe Calamari con piselli

Cena di Pesce

Summer finally arrived in Minneapolis, and the gorgeous, hot weather had us craving seafood.  A zuppa di pesce appetizer with prosecco, followed by spaghetti alle vongole as a the first course, gamberi alla griglia as a second course, and white wine from the south of Italy, made for a perfect summer evening dinner.

Zuppa di Pesce
Zuppa, as it sounds, means soup and pesce is Italian for fish and seafood.  A slice of bread toasted on the grill placed at the bottom of the dish absorbs the delicious broth.

Approximately 2 lbs. Seafood Medley, fresh or frozen.  Look for shellfish like clams and mussels, shrimp, squid, scallops.  Avoid crabmeat.
1 clove garlic
2 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. tomato paste
1/2 cup fish stock
1 bunch Italian flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
3 pinches salt
Red Pepper
Olive oil
White wine

Cut the clove of garlic into 6-8 pieces, and sauté in olive oil until golden brown.  Add the seafood, butter, tomato sauce, fish stock and wine, salt and if you like a dash of black and red pepper.  Let the mixture simmer for 5-7 minutes, and then turn off heat.

Toast slices of rustic bread in the oven or on the grill.  Place one slice of bread at the bottom of a shallow soup bowl, and spoon the zuppa di pesce over it.  Sprinkle chopped parsley on top.  Serve hot.

Spaghetti alle Vongole
This is one of our all time favorite dishes.  Vongole is the Italian word for clams.  Clams from the Mediterranean are smaller than their cousins in the found in the Atlantic, off of the east coast of the United States.  If you can, buy the Mediterranean ones – they are a little more flavorful and delicate. If you can’t find Mediterranean clams, Littleneck clams work just fine.

2 lbs. clams
1 clove garlic
Olive oil
2 Tbsp. butter
1/2 cup clam stock
1/2 cup white wine
2 pinches salt
1 bunch Italian flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
1 lb. spaghetti

Rinse clams in cold water, and examine them to verify that they are all closed.  Discard any clams that are open; this is a sign that they are bad.  Set clams aside.  Cut the clove of garlic into 6-8 pieces, and sauté in olive oil until golden brown.  Add  clams, clam stock, wine, butter and salt.  Let simmer until all of the clams have opened up and some of the liquids have evaporated, approximately 5-10 minutes.  Remove from heat.

In a separate pot, add spaghetti to boiling, salted water.  (See Methods section for more information about how to salt the pasta water).  Cook until al dente.  Drain.  Return to pot, and add the clam mixture.  Stir gently.  Serve in pasta plates garnished with a sprinkle of parsley.  Remember to put an empty plate or two on the table for the clam shells.

Gamberi alla Griglia
Skewered, grilled king tiger prawn were an easy and delicious end to our seafood dinner.

1 lb king tiger prawn, or fresh, uncooked jumbo shrimp (approximately 20)
Juice of 1 lemon
Wooden or metal skewers

Rinse prawns in cold water.  Place in a bowl.  Squeeze the juice of one lemon over them, and let marinade for approximately 20 minutes.

If you are using wooden skewers, soak them in water before using them to prevent them from burning on the grill.  Place prawns onto skewer by piercing them through their middle.

Place prawn skewers on grill at medium heat for approximately  5 minutes on each side, brushing the remainder of the marinade on them from time to time.

Remove from heat and serve.  You can use fancy silverware to remove the head and shell, or if you are at home with family and friends, just pull it off with your fingers and enjoy.

We began the dinner sipping a nice prosecco called Sergio, from the Veneto region of Italy.  Extra dry and crisp with green apple and citrus aromas, it complimented the shellfish and seafood with its minerality.

Next, we opened a bottle of Falanghina, a wine made in Benevento, in the Campania region of Italy that boasts a long history of seafood cuisine.  Falanghina has quickly become one of our favorite white wines, and this particular 2009 Falanghina from the Cantina del Taburno label was exceptional.   It is slightly sparkling and minerally, with a crisp acidity that allows the wine to pair beautifully with shellfish and crustaceans.