Friday, February 20, 2009

When Worlds Collide

Or, what happens when a long-time desert-dweller walks into a seaside fish shop?

I like seafood, but have to say that I haven't consumed a lot of it since I've been in Italy, despite living in fairly close proximity to a sea the entirety of our residence. Okay, I confess. I realistically haven't consumed a whole lot of it in my lifetime.

I grew up in Northern Ohio, where the only fish we encountered was of the fried persuasion. You can have it on a bun or on a plate, always topped with globs of tartar sauce. Then I lived in the desert for a long time where fresh fish is pretty scarce. Sure, there is the occasional river trout but everything else that swims gets flown in from long distances. I'm sure it's fine, but still...I always had my doubts about freshness.

In Ascoli, despite its proximity to the Adriatic, the culinary traditions are much more tied to the hills than the sea. The two pesce shops in town were owned by the same rude guy, who didn't like my requests to clean the fish for me. (At least take out the innards, I pleaded, which seemed to be too much of a chore for him, despite Chef Giorgio assuring me it was normale to ask for this service anywhere else.) So we shunned seafood unless dining out and partaking of the Fully Monty feast.

Then there is the whole "whole fish" thing. If I did venture into seafood preparation back home, the fish came nicely filleted and boned. Cleaned and ready, even. Here you get the whole shebang and it's pretty much up to you to clean it, fillet it or roast it whole, then chop off the head, yank out the bones and try not to choke on the ones you have missed.

But now we find ourselves back on the Mediterranean where I daily watch the fishing boats tooling around the bay, and where I have chatted amiably with a few of the seafarers while they were dockside repairing their nets or painting their boats. I figured we really should partake while were here where it's so fresh.

There is a fish shop down at the bottom of the hill from us and while the offerings have looked pretty abundant and good when I have passed by, it is also the local old-guy hang-out. That means that absolutely anything that transpires within the shop is completely open to public scrutiny and any purchase would go something like this:

Me: "Uh, what kind of fish is this?"
Owner: "That's a flounder."
Observer 1: "Mah! She doesn't recognize a flounder when she sees one?"
Observer 2: "That's no flounder, that's a halibut!"
Then a lively and lengthy discussion would ensue while I stand listening, ignorant and fish-less. I've had these experiences before. They can be interesting, but I really wasn't in the mood to have my ignorance put on trial.

I went into town to a smallish shop not far from the seafront where I had watched the guys delivering the fresh catch just minutes before. I thought that boded well. I wandered about looking at the fish while being careful to not set my gaze on the squid and seppia. Anything of the jelly or squishy variety is strictly off my list and the sight of their gooey mass makes me a little squeamish.

The guy asked what I wanted, so I just confessed up front, "I'm not sure. I don't know fish well, I'm from the desert." Va bene. "Vorebbe la spigola? Or maybe some nice vongole? Shellfish? What type?"

Boh. A fish, not frutti di mare, I said. Quickly grasping that I don't know my bass from a rombo, he gave me a little guided tour.

"Qui, questa e` spigola. SPIGOLAAAAA. CapitoooOO?" Si.
"Questo...QUESTO PESCE QUI..." poking at it, "OR-A-TA." And so on.

I chose the spigola and asked him to clean it, per favore. No problem! (Thank God!) He asked what I would be doing with it ("Arrosto? Al forno? Do you want it filleted?") and set about scraping off the scales and gutting it.

We chit-chatted about New Mexico and how the landscape is indeed similar to the John Wayne films he has seen and how that explains my fish ignorance. He handed over the goods, knocked a little off the price and wouldn't take a tip for cleaning it, despite the hand-written sign I spotted saying a gratuity was appreciated for that chore.

I've been initiated; he told me I could come back anytime for further fish lessons and he would make sure I get the nicest ones he has. Maybe there is hope for us desert-dwellers after all.


Anonymous said...

Great fish story! Now I want to know how you cooked it, and how it turned out!!

Donna in SF

Ice Tea For Me said...

I'm like you, not a huge fish eater nor do I like to fuss with it. I bet your fish turned out great.

Stop by my blog and enter my giveaway.


Louise Sportelli said...

Love your blog in general and your "fishy" story in particular. Being from the Seattle area fish is second nature. However when we are in Italy I am never too sure about all those teeny tiny fish. Give me a hunk of salmon or halibut any day. You are lucky to be living in a town large enough to boast a real pescheria not the congelato variety. It is interesting hearing about a less well known part of Italy. When we are at our house near Lucca in the spring we plan to drive to Sicilia. I have never been further south than Salerno so I am looking forward to seeing that stretch of coast. Our blog is sort of on hiatus over the winter but if you go back to October/November you can see what our part-time life in Italy is like. Thanks for the insights into your world.
Ciao ciao,

janie said...

I've also pretty much shied away from ordering fish in Italy-not really understanding what all the different types were. Glad to hear that you found a good fishmonger, willing to help you out!

Gil said...

That is the kind of business to make friends with. I'm sure when he says you will get the best he means it.

Valerie said...

Donna - I baked it 'al forno' like the guy recommended, with some rosemary, garlic and lemon slices tucked inside and drizzled with olive oil. Very moist and tasty!

Linda - It did turn out great; I returned yesterday for another shot at it. I'll drop by, thanks!

Louise - Thanks, glad you like it (the blog and the story ;) Those teeny fish they eat whole, heads and bones and all! (Ick!) I am a Pacific salmon kind of girl myself.

Janie - there are definitely different varieties I had never seen nor heard of before (stingray anyone?) The guy has a really thick accent but wants me to enjoy the fish and gives me cooking tips, too.

Gil - Absolutely!

Megan in Liguria said...

Cute story and welcome to the world of fish! :)

Being that my husband is in the business (fish that is) and me being a HUGE fish lover, some goods one to try that won't make you (too) queasy:

* Tranci di Salmone (salmon steaks about an inch think)
* Pesce Spada (swordfish)
* Orata (filleted!)
* Merluzza fillets (put a little olive oil, white wine, lemon and slices of yellow onion and it's almost gourmet!)
*I even go so far to say acciuge/alici (anchovies) because they are nothing like what we have in the states and they are delicious in pasta and stuffed or marinated.

J.Doe said...

Did he really speak so slowly? O RA TA and SPIG O LA? And if you only told him that you didn't know fish, why did he assume that you were also deaf.

DominiqueH said...

I loved your experience. It mirrors mine, only mine dealt with the Meat guy up the street. What is the difference between Bovina and Vitello? Yeah, I was schooled. And I was told it wasn't normal to try and buy lamb before February..... Lessons learned!!

Valerie said...

Megan - Thanks for the tips from the pro! I tried merluzzo last time and it came out pretty good.

Jane - Yes, he spoke loud and slowly when he learned we were strainieri. Like Americans who think speaking louder will mean you will understand better.

Domonique - That's funny, I never knew about the lamb seasonal restriction!