Shellfish is popular in many Italian restaurants. In Italy and abroad, you will find popular dishes, such as linguine con le vongole (linguine with clams). Or you might prefer shrimp fra diavolo, which is a little spicy. When you order one of these beauties in Italy, be prepared for judgment. Everyone agrees that shellfish is divine there, especially in southern Italy. But there are rules for eating it. And many foreigners, especially Americans, are clueless about them. Discover what you need to know before sitting down at a restaurant:
Fresh Is the Best
What makes these dishes so delectable in Italy is the freshness. As Americans, we are often getting fish the restaurant manager bought at the Restaurant Depot. It’s fine and all. But when I’m in Ischia, a small island off the coast of Naples that is home of my ancestors and husband, I’m seeing my meal get plucked from the ocean moments before it is cooked and served. Italians prioritize fresh, seasonal food. You’re going to get fish that’s native to the area, and it will have been alive shortly before it was plated. You will notice the difference immediately. If there is a fishy smell or fishy taste, it is not fresh. This means you should not eat it. If the clams or mussels are still closed after their little friends have magically opened during cooking, you should toss them.
Spare the Salt
Whenever I’m watching a cooking show in the United States, I notice chefs are heavy handed with the salt. That’s not the case in Italy. Many seafood dishes – especially if the fish is coming from the already salty ocean – require little to no salt. If you dare use salt, keep it to a pinch. Shellfish usually doesn’t require any.
No Cheese Please
This is the one that really trips up Americans. We are quick to put Parmigiano cheese (or whatever is passing for Parmigiano at the supermarket) on any pasta. Italians believe it is sacrilege to put cheese on a shellfish dish. In fact, when my cousin ordered linguine con vongole in Italy, the waiter famously refused to give him cheese to top it. Oh yeah, he told him, “No way, mister!” If you want to avoid getting your hand slapped, you won’t even ask for it. However, a few intrepid chefs in Ischia have recently added a few Parmigiano shavings to a dish of pasta with mussels and zucchini. It’s not bad. For the most part, though, the cheese on shellfish is still off limits. The belief is that it destroys or hides the taste of the fresh shellfish. When it’s straight from the ocean, you won’t need the cheese. Promise.
Never Mess with Shrimp
Americans are all about cleanliness. We buy already cleaned shrimp, usually frozen in a bag. We never see the shrimp with their heads still attached. Ewwww! Right? But Italians are distinctly different. They don’t mind the mess of cleaning the shrimp at the table while eating. Indeed, cooking the shrimp with skin on and head attached makes for a tastier dish, they say. You’ll see the eyes and everything. But after you cut off the head and remove the skin, you’ll take a bite. And you won’t be disappointed. Many Italians suck the juice out of the head, in fact. I’m not a big fan of that practice. I’m too American, I guess. Still, I never complain about fully clothed shrimp anymore. It’s too delicious to argue.
Only Lemon for the Fried Stuff
While Americans only seem to eat calamari fried, they are at least indulging in one of southern Italy’s finest ingredients. But they serve the things with red tomato sauce and lemon. Sometimes, there are other dips and doodads surrounding the calamari. Often, there are far too many ingredients in the batter, too. Italians usually just cover the calamari in flour and some light seasoning, such as parsley, before frying. An Italian restaurant in Italy is never going to serve you red tomato sauce on the side of your calamari. The waiter will just bring out lemon to squirt on them. Again, when you are eating fresher food, you don’t need all that other stuff to cover up the natural flavors. Besides, the lemons of southern Italy are usually also exceptional, so you won’t miss getting saucy.