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.