Spezia’s Sublime Seafood

June 19, 2015 / Food & Wine
La Spezia, Liguria

As we pushed open the osteria‘s dark green wooden door, lace curtains on the windows, our spezzina friend Monia asked us, “Ever eaten in a seafood restaurant which closes for the day if the owner can’t get the morning catch of fresh seafood?” This was one: Osteria Picciarello in La Spezia, right on the coastal road leading to the Cinque Terre. We sat down on cane-seated cheery yellow chairs at our table in an empty dining area. This was closing day, and Monia’s friend, Lara (cook – and, astoundingly, the ONLY kitchen staff here at the Osteria) was in the kitchen creating a seafood feast for just the four of us. Born in La Spezia – “but we spezzini call it just ‘Spezia’ as the definite article, ‘la’, was a clerk’s error in the last century” – Monia now lives near Assisi with Raffaella (from southern Umbria) but has known Lara and her husband, Stefano, osteria host, for a couple decades.

Osteria Picciarello, only fresh fish
Osteria door open to welcome us
Lara at the burners, preparing our pasta goodness

“During our Spezia vacations, we eat here many nights weekly,” Raffaella told us as Stefano poured us a chilled Ligurian white, Vermentino. “…e ho il massimo del territorio,” he told us with pride, sweeping his hand over the shelves of wine bottles behind us. (lit. – I’ve got the best the area offers.) Then Stefano told us what they’d be serving us for lunch. And isn’t that the sign of a great restaurant? The cook decides, based on the fresh ingredients available.

Wine selection tops
Vermentino wines at this lunch

Monia and Raffaella recognized all the dishes in the litany – we certainly didn’t – and smiled approval. I could see Pino, Sicilian, ready and eager to try the Ligurian seafood dishes, which certainly would have nothing in common with le specialita’ di mare siciliane – but it would be seafood all the same, a change from our Umbrian prosciutto, lamb, veal and wild boar.

Potatoes and tomatoes on the side for Monia
Raffaella with salad.with cuttlefish and squid

Monia promised us a rigorosamente ligure lunch and we knew it from the first antipasto: a tortino of baked potato slivers. Tiny fresh tomatoes and fresh anchovies. And right behind that one, a delicate salad with baby cuttlefish, tiny squid, citrus fruit slices. Mackerel tidbits with cherry tomatoes and fresh basil trailed – and then came the stuffed muscoli, a Ligurian signature dish. “Don’t call mussels ‘cozze’ here or the fish vendor will ignore you. For us liguri, they’re ‘muscoli’.” Monia learned the dish from her grandmother and makes it in Umbria when she can find good cozze (for here in Umbria, muscoli are built up in the gym!). The fresh mussels are opened one-by-one, emptied of their flesh and then stuffed with a buonissimo mixture of bread crumbs, finely-chopped mortadella, Parmesan, marjoram, thyme, nutmeg and minutely-diced mussels.

IMG_4193
Delicate salad with citrus fruits, squid and baby cuttlefish
stuffed-muscoli

This same filling is also used to stuff the anchovies, dredged in flour and then fried, which alternated on skewers with fried zucchini, fried mussels, and fried shrimp (first rolled in corn flour – “corn for shrimp and muscoli, white flour for anchovies,” Monia instructed) for our next antipasto.

Stuffed squid are the specialty

And any Ligurian antipasto “parade” has to include acciughe a scabeccio: fried fresh anchovies, marinated in white wine vinegar. Stefano – serving them with a carrot and onion slice, rosemary sprig on top – told us, “I’m fifty years old but I’ll always remember the smell of vinegar in our home: Nonna and Mamma were always marinating anchovies.” Monia, too, remembers the pungent vinegar smell infusing her Nonna’s Ligurian home.

Acciughe scabeccio
Acciughe a scabeccio : a Ligurian specialty

Stefano proposed just a small pasta “taste” for us because his diver had had good luck that morning, spearing a 6 kg. (13 lb.) sea bass. Stefano purchases his fresh seafood only from the diver and from one woman at the fish market, Teresa. If they do not have fresh fish, Stefano does not open.

Luck was with us that day.

Lara’s Ligurian pasta specialty, homemade chestnut-flour picagge (similar to tagliatelle) – only her pasta is served at this restaurant – was highlighted with a savory sauce of cuttlefish, a touch of tomato and Ligurian DOP basil pesto. As we savored the goodness, Monia reflected on the characteristics of Ligurian cooking: “our cooking is that of the sea married to that of the land. The sea often took away our men (note: many became fishermen, sailors) and those at home worked the terraced land high above the sea. Many were afraid of the sea.” Pino nodded agreement and added, “anche per l’incursione dei pirati.” (“Also because of the pirates’ raids.”)

Pasta goodness

And this Ligurian sea/land culinary “marriage” starred in our final course: roasted sea bass surrounded by baked cherry tomatoes and potatoes. That bass launched Pino into “seafood paradiso.”

All of us followed.

Ah, that sea bass!
AH, that final course

None of us had room for dessert but how not to at least taste Lara’s tarts (Monia: “I’ll never master Lara’s pastry crust – soft but also crispy”) and her strawberry/cream pudding? After espresso, Lara and Stefano wrapped a couple Vermentino bottles for us to take home as gifts.

Lara would return to the kitchen for clean-up after we left. Her work for our meal astounded and it was impossible to imagine that lithe young woman doing those same tasks – and many others – day after day, for a full dining room: pasta-making, pastry-rolling, the prying open of hundreds of muscolo shells, de-boning of fish, cleaning octopus, shelling shrimp, dicing up cuttlefish and squids, washing and slicing and dicing all the vegetables.

And what does she do between lunch and dinner service? Zips home to help their eight-year old son, Andrea (in Nonna’s care) with his homework!

Lara, we don’t mean to give you more work in the Osteria Picciarello kitchen, but… we’ll be back!

Monia tells Pino how she met Stefano and about his cooking. JPG
We'll always remember them
IMG_4302
La Spezia - L'Arsenale della Marina Militare di La Spezia (Liguria ___

Description La Spezia Gg
Pasta-goodness-

Anne Robichaud

by Anne Robichaud

An authorized Umbrian tour guide, Anne and her husband Pino worked the land for many years in the 1970’s so rural life, rural people, rural cuisine are una passione for her. See Umbria from “the inside”: join her May 2017 ten-day tour centered on discovering Umbria, Anne’s Umbria.

See www.annesitaly.com for more on her Umbria tours. Do see www.stayassisi.com for news on the Assisi apartment – and Assisi countryside guest house – she and Pino now rent out.

Anne writes frequently on Umbria and other areas of Italy. Read about her annual U.S. Feb/Mar cooking classes and lectures, as well as her numerous Italy insights on her blog.

40 Responses to “Spezia’s Sublime Seafood”

  1. Dominick

    I am saving this precious article.mnext trip to Italy (hopefully sooner rather than later) I must eat here. I trust they are open to the public but after reading this I will assume a table/seat will be hard to come by. Thank you Anne!

    Reply
  2. I’m in the heart of seafood country in the USA, Downeast Maine, and nothing here comes even close to the wonderful seafood dishes described in this post. Wish I were there and having lunch right now, at 7:39 a.m. on a rainy Maine morning.

    Reply
  3. Will be in the Cinque Terra area next spring. Hope to locate this gem! Thank you for once again enlightening us with a little bit of real Italy!

    Reply
  4. Janine Belveal

    A sublime article. Anne brings those dishes to life and makes you want them badly. The pictures captured all the delicious goodness!

    Reply
  5. Lina Falcone

    These dishes look great Grazie for sharing and hope to go there next time I go to Italy.

    Reply
  6. carol weed lundin

    Another fabulous post by Annie! Her posts are as rich and fascinating as her personal tours and since I am presently (and unfortunately) far away from Italy, I will at least savor her writing – it is almost as good as actually being there!

    Reply
  7. Susan Senise

    As I began reading this wonderful post, I thought “this has to be written by Anne Robichaud!” Her descriptions are flawless and rich, and her pictures are always charming! Anne is one of a kind. Her tours are also wonderful…full of interesting little known facts and personal details. Anne is the best!

    Reply
  8. Madaline

    Looks like Anne has us all craving seafood for breakfast! My boring yogurt will have to do. Great article!! 50 shades of seafood!!

    Reply
  9. Louis Sirianni

    Anne
    You have done it again……. I feel like I can taste it all.
    Thank you

    Reply
  10. Rosemary Johnson

    What a great write-up and such mouthwatering pictures! It’s 9 A.M. in Chicago, and I’m thinking about seafood and not eggs!

    Reply
  11. Susan Caracciolo Keane

    I grew up hearing about Spezia from my Dad, who grew up there. I hope to visit there some day. Thank you for this article, there are very few about this region to be had on the internet or in print. This is a little gem for me!

    Reply
  12. Anna Retsker

    Anne, your story is so rich and colorful! Abundant salivation started while just looking at the pictures. Next time I go to Italy I’ll stop by La Spezia – many people say it is very beautiful and has a special touch! Thank you so much for the wonderful story.

    Reply
  13. Katie Larsh

    Grazie, Annie and Pino for sharing your passion for all that is wonderful in Italy! Since the Cinque Terre is on our list of future trips we will be sure to keep this gem on the itinerary! I especially enjoyed the photos of you and Pino and his display of the delicious sea bass! Your personal notes of the area and its people are captivating and I’m thinking you could write a book with all your postings! It all comes right into my home and I feel we are there! Thank you, Annie!

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  14. Rachel Cohen

    What a wonderful meal! and what a wonderful post!!! Thank you, Anne. I am going to be thinking about how to recreate some of those dishes here in central Texas!

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  15. Gian Banchero

    Thank you Anne for not only the article but for the recipes, with the slightest imagination one can discern the measurements. This seafood restaurant sounds typical of the many establishments found off the beaten path in small villages and even in big cities once out of the tourist areas, I always search out “mom and pop” establishments which always serve food for the neighborhood, never for the tourist. This rule runs true from the north to Sicily. Also, thank you Anne for all the wonderful photos, today I’ll have your photos displayed on the computer while I try to replicate one of the above recipes. Buon pranzo e grazie!!!!

    Reply
  16. Lyn Beckenham

    I enjoyed this story, the appetizing description of the seafood meal & the photos!

    Reply
  17. John Figliozzi

    That has to be the best seafood around. And although you did not mention it, it was probably a lot less expensive than most “regular” restaurants. I just had lunch but I am hungry again after reading this! Grazie Mille!

    Reply
  18. Ann Krapf

    Anne,
    Amazing pictures and descriptions. Preparing food is such a labor of love for the Italians. Thanks for sharing part of your wonderful life!

    Reply
  19. Anne, this is fabulous! Thanks for sharing such a great review. We will be in Cinque Terra in the fall and will look for this gem.

    Reply
  20. Trisha Lenarz-Garmoe

    Anne makes everything come alive through her writing and when you are with her. I can taste the wonderful food through her descriptions. If you tour with Anne, Umbria comes alive in a special way as well!! I recommend eating where Anne suggests, touring with Anne and visiting her and Pino’s lovely acreage!!!

    Reply
  21. Jenny Hannan

    The acciughe caught my imagination – all that work with those tiny fish. Great work, and yes, Pino certainly looks handsome!

    Reply
  22. Anstell Ricossa

    Your descriptions make me want to hop on a direct flight to Italy “SUBITO” !
    Grazie.

    Reply
  23. Linda Boccia

    The pictures and the descriptions were so enticing that even though i just ate dinner I could just about taste all the delicious dishes described. Buon appetito!

    Reply
  24. Mary Cappiello

    Mouth watering, again, Annie! You are surely planning our itinerary for us on our next trip to Italy!

    Reply
  25. Jack Litewka

    I can diet today by skipping eating…and just rereading this delicious article.

    Reply
  26. I believe that some days in the life are perfect days, that one with you, Pino and Raffaella was one of them!
    My friends at Osteria Picciarello really thank you for your poetical writings, hoping to see you soon. Love.

    Reply
  27. Janice Peters

    What incredible photos as well as educational story. Have a great summer!
    Cheers,
    Janice Peters

    Reply
  28. Deborah Salae

    Wow, I thought you were describing 3 different meals, not just one. Mama mia! Your description of people, places, and food are so evocative, Anne. Thank you so much for this postcard of a wonderful day in a gorgeous part of beloved Italia.

    Reply
  29. In tutta la pianeta, NON c’e` un paese come la nostra bell”Italia — neanche c’e` una gente cosi` simpatica e brava! Il mangiare d’Italia e` incredibile in tutto il mondo. Grazie infinite, Anne, per aver diviso tutto questo con noi!

    Reply
  30. Anne Robichaud

    Thanks to each for your warm and appreciated comments and hope all have read the comment of Antonio Russo who eloquently sums up his Italy (now, “mine,” too, by “adoption”): ” nowhere on the PLANET like Italy…no people as simpatica and brava (no translation needed) and Italian cooking, incredible..in all the world..” Mille grazie, Antonio..and all….

    Reply
  31. Fran Pasetti

    In a land of culinary riches, Osteria Picciarello seems to be an outstanding gem.

    Reply
  32. Stephanie W

    i loved this adventure of yours! It’s a treat to see Pino in this story, to see him enjoying himself in the middle of your story. This little place looks fantastic & of course the food, I always have to keep myself from licking the pictures! Keep exploring, I adore seeing Italy thru your eyes & other senses. Thank you, again for my vicarious trip to Italia.

    Reply
  33. Sandi Spector

    Another wonderful ‘story’ by Annie. She makes the event come alive & the desire to visit heighten. In this case we all get hungry for the food & a visit to the Osteria. You do your adopted country a great service by writing & showing us tourists around so we develop a love for Italia also.
    grazie Annie

    Reply
  34. Catherine Williams

    Anne, your article makes me feel that I have been transported to La Spezia — or better said, that I MUST go and relish the cuisine and people and atmosphere that you have captured so compellingly in the article. You bring all these together in a remarkable way, and your photos are outstanding!

    I can’t wait to return to Italy and join you again in rediscovering all the treasures you reveal to everyone!

    Reply

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