Made with the freshest seafood possible in a flavorful tomato-based fish broth, this Italian-American Cioppino Recipe is incredible! It’s a special dish that was crafted in San Francisco and is often served around the holiday season to recognize the Feast of the Seven Fishes.
The stew is layered with complex flavors and enough different types of fish and shellfish to overflow your bowl with deliciousness, yet it’s actually quite easy to make in just under an hour.
What is cioppino?
Cioppino is a classic Italian-American seafood stew that hails from San Francisco, California. It’s said to have been created in the late 1800s by fishermen who were Italian immigrants from Genoa and had settled in the North Beach area. The stew was an economical way for them to make use of what they caught that day and the flavor profile was crafted to remind them of home.
The stew is basically a smorgasbord of seafood in a delicious broth composed of fish stock and tomato sauce with a bit of white wine and fresh fennel that gives the stew a wonderful refined finish. Cioppino is always made with several different types of seafood such as fish, shrimp, scallops, crab legs, clams, and mussels. However, any choice of seafood can be used and most Italian-American families have their own recipes that they make for special occasions.
Having lived in San Francisco for over a decade, I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing cioppino numerous times in various restaurants across the city. Each establishment boasts its own unique take on the dish, proudly claiming theirs to be the best. While I don’t have a particular favorite, a memorable experience was enjoying cioppino at the Cliff House when my parents visited in 2017. The blend of flavors in their version was a delightful representation of this San Franciscan culinary gem.
Yet, while it may not have its actual roots in Italy, everything about cioppino is based on the fundamental principles of Italian cooking such as only using the freshest and best quality ingredients possible. In fact, the dish gets its name from a similar dish called ciuppin that comes from the Liguria region of Genoa, Italy.
What do you need to make this recipe?
Large Pot – A large pot or Dutch oven is needed to make the Italian seafood stew. It should be big enough to hold all the cooked seafood and broth.
Saucepans – You need a separate saucepan to saute the shellfish before adding it to the stew.
Wooden Spoon – Needed to saute the ingredients and deglaze the pot.
Ladle – To ladle the seafood soup into bowls.
Cutting Board – For food safety, use a clean cutting board to slice the fish and other seafood.
Sharp Knife – Use a properly sharpened knife to cut the fish so it doesn’t tear.
Prep – 20 minutes
Cook – 40 minutes
Fresh Seafood – A combination of different types of fish, shellfish, and prawns are called for in this recipe. Ideally, saltwater varieties of fish such as halibut, red snapper, and sea bass are the best choices. And use fresh rather than frozen seafood if possible.
Olive Oil – For the most flavorful Italian seafood stew, choose a high-quality extra virgin olive oil to saute the veggies and the shellfish.
Onion – Brown or yellow onions are the best options when making stew.
Garlic – Always use fresh garlic cloves. Store-bought minced garlic can sometimes have a bitter taste due to the preservatives.
Fennel Bulb – Has a slight anise taste that adds a bit of refinement to the broth. Use the fennel fronds as well for a more intense flavor.
Tomato Sauce – Creates the soup base along with the fish stock. Use a higher quality tomato sauce for a more authentic cioppino taste.
Bay Leaf – An important aromatic herb commonly used in Italian cooking to add depth.
White Wine – Adds a bit of acid that helps to further develop and refine the broth. You want to use a dry white wine like Pinot Grigio.
Fish Stock – Choose a fish stock for this recipe and not a broth. They are made differently and not equal in flavor. You can also add a bit of clam juice.
Italian Parsley – Used to finish the dish and add flavor when sauteing the shellfish. Always use fresh herbs.
Seasonings – Used to bring the flavors of the fish stew together. Use fine kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper if you have it on hand.
How to make this recipe step-by-step
Saute the vegetables
To begin, heat 2 tablespoons of the extra virgin olive over medium-high in a large pot. Then saute the onion, fennel, and half of the garlic for a few minutes (photo 1).
Make the broth
Once the vegetables have been sauteed, add the tomato sauce and bay leaf to the pot (photo 2). Then bring the mixture to a simmer and let it cook for 10 minutes. Next, add the white wine and half of the fish stock (photo 3).
Add the fish and prawns
With the broth made, add the fish pieces and prawns. Now, cook the stew over medium heat for 15 minutes without stirring.
Saute the shellfish
Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a separate saucepan over medium-high heat. Next, saute the shellfish along with the rest of the garlic for 1 minute. Then add most of the chopped parsley and the other half of the fish stock to the pot and cook until most of them open up. Discard any shellfish whose shells do not open.
Finish the cioppino
To complete the stew, add the shellfish mixture to the pot with the fish. If using, add the crab at this time and simmer everything together for 5 minutes. Then taste and season with salt and pepper.
Now, garnish the seafood stew with some fresh chopped parsley and serve immediately with some fresh homemade crusty bread like my Italian Ciabatta and red pepper flakes if you like.
Use thicker and firmer varieties of fish such as halibut and sea bass so that the chunks of fish won’t fall apart while being cooked in the broth.
For the best flavor, use high-quality extra olive oil, fish stock, and tomato sauce. As well as, freshly chopped parsley and garlic.
Scrape the bottom of the pot well after adding the tomato sauce, stock, and wine to loosen all the brown bits. Deglazing is the key to making a flavorful stew.
Try not to stir the stew once the fish has been added. It’s okay to ensure that the fish is submerged in liquid and distributed evenly, but stirring too much will break it up.
Throw away any shellfish whose shells do not open after being cooked. This means that the shellfish was already dead and is harmful to eat.
Wait until the stew is ready to serve before adding more salt. It reduces as it cooks so if you season it too soon you risk ending up with an oversalted bowl of cioppino.
Other soup recipes to try:
How to store cioppino?
Leftovers will keep for up to 3 days in the fridge and up to 3 months in the freezer when stored in an airtight container. To reheat from frozen, it’s best to allow the stew to thaw out overnight in the fridge.
Can the stew be made ahead of time?
Yes and no. You can make the broth days ahead of time. But I don’t recommend cooking the seafood until the day you plan to serve.
What does cioppino mean in Italian?
Cioppino is believed to come from the word “ciuppin” which means to chop in the Ligurian dialect. Loosely translated is believed to mean little soup, but you can find differing opinions related to this Italian-American dish.
What’s the difference between cioppino and bouillabaisse?
While the two seafood stews do have some similarities there are distinguishing differences. To begin, Bouillabaisse is French, incorporates saffron into the broth, and is based on a white fish stock with just a few tomatoes added. Whereas, cioppino is a tomato-based seafood stew with no saffron that originated in San Francisco.
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