Fish as an Italian Staple

“What is patriotism but the love of good things we ate in our childhood” —Lin Yutang

Being Italian, fish was consumed more often than meat in my childhood, due to the quantity and variety Italians experience having a 9000 mile coast line. Tourist may not be aware of fish as an Italian staple seeing the popular dishes of pasta and pizzas, of which often many have seafood as their base. But Italians are one of the largest consumers of fresh fish in Europe which they may grill or bake and serve whole to family members. Besides the popularity of whole cernia, branzini, orata, trout, or sogliola, also popular and less expensive are small seafoods that make an excellent base for many sauces as well as eating them alone.  Most Americans do not customarily eat them not having been introduced to them at an early age which is unfortunate being that they are the most nutritious, and greatest value for the money: anchovies, sardines, smelts, snails, seppie, and muscles to name a few. In our family children learn to eat fish before they learn of social taboos. For example, when asking grandkids Luca and Dante for their favorite meal I was surprised to hear them say how much they loved fried smelts, eating them head to tail.

Eating smelts at age 4 and 6

When serving whole fish Italian adults may help those under ten but teach older children to look for the little bones that can be harmful and they are taught how to remove them themselves. It is sad that in America whole fish is usually not eaten whole being that many do not know how to cook them or if eating out, have the fear of choking on a bone and could lead to a law suit. The reason that most restaurants do not serve fish whole with bones or if so clean them for their customers. Thus another wonderful experienced is lost due to not being introduced to a delicacy at an early age and allowing cultural taboos reinforce this loss. When on a return from Italy I tried to get our American fish salesman to get me some small seafood, he explained they do not sell since there is not a market for them and they perish in a day or two. I learned in the restaurant business that is why they offer large fish such as salmon, seabass, sword fish, and halibut since they last 4 days. In Italy the demand is so great that small fish are often caught and consumed the same day.

Luca eating whole fish, head to tail

Whole fish for all members of the family even the kids

When asked for a whole fish at our local Southern California popular chain supermarket, I was surprised when informed we do not sell whole fish. I asked them to not cut it and I would buy it whole. The answer was we only receive it frozen, cut in serving pieces being that the homemakers want it that way. I was surprised seeing the usual 5 varieties, tilapia, shrimp, salmon, seabass and lobster. It caught my attention being that our little local supermarket, has some 25 fresh fish to select from and our fish salesman would cut to order. Our fish market needless to say would have double or triple the number. Our farm community of lower income families have a better choice than our southern California upper class clientele because they may not know how to cook it or are not familiar as to what to do with it not having had them in their youth.

Child eating snailsExposing children at an early age allows them a variety of nutritious and often economical foods to enjoy in a lifetime. It is unfortunate that Americans do not in general serve their children these foods which I learned from my experience at the farmhouse. We eat lots of snails. Since we have an organic garden and use no pesticides it is safe to collect them from the yard when available if not at our Italian supermarket which is usually not offered in small American markets. Regret being tough on the Americans but when we have other ethnic groups I am happy to see they and their children enjoy such delicacies. One of our guests from Argentina enjoyed snails with us as well as their 5 year old daughter shown here digging them out of their shells with a tooth pick.

After buying and cleaning muscles the kids made chioppino with grandpa’s help.


In Italy shrimp is served unpeeled, considered more of a delicacy with more flavor. Having to suck out the shrimp involves some work. When serving chioppino in Italy with the shrimp that gives it a great seafood base stock, I am always surprised to see the shrimp return to the kitchen untouched. Again culture plays a role here. As you see our grandchildren do not allow it to go back to the kitchen untouched. Dante, Laila and Bo all have learned how to handle unpeeled shrimp in Italy. I do warn our guests when they order shrimp, gambero, long and surprised to see it with its shell.  They often look at me and ask “what do I do with this?”

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