Northside SF  

October '09

Searching for the perfect cioppino: Did this Italian fish stew
really originate in North Beach?

By Ernest Beyl

One might presume I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about cioppino. And I suppose I do. I think a lot about food in general. But cioppino occupies me — more than say, frozen fish sticks.   
On cioppino there is some dispute and a bit of mystery. The story behind this succulent, tomato-based fish stew is that it originated in San Francisco — more specifically with Italian fishermen in this city’s North Beach neighborhood. There’s a considerable weight of publicity to confirm this in cookbooks, websites and from local gourmets and gourmands.

Now, I don’t want to be a spoilsport, and I bow to no one in my love of San Francisco’s North Beach, not to mention its Italian fishing community. Nevertheless I refuse to believe that along the coast of mare nostrum, that ancient sea, the Mediterranean, no fisherman ever came up with the grandfather of all cioppinos.

As a longtime and devoted cioppino lover, I have been doing some serious research and here’s a summary.

The San Francisco Chronicle food page said, “Local lore has it that this tomato-heavy seafood treat, closely related to ciuppin, the fish stew of Genoa, was invented by Guiseppe Bazzuro who turned an abandoned ship into the city’s first Italian restaurant in 1850. Genovese fishermen used whatever fish and seafood they had left over. San Francisco cioppino in its finest versions, features local Dungeness crab.”

Helen Evans Brown in The West Coast Cookbook goes with the Guiseppe Bazzuro story and then sensibly adds, “What’s more, it was supposed to be from an old recipe, well-known in Italy.”
American cookery giant James Beard weighs in with an elaborate recipe for cioppino that includes Dungeness crab, shrimp, clams, or mussels or oysters (or all three), sea bass, halibut or other firm-fleshed fish — tomatoes of course. But he never says it was San Franciscan in origin.
The American Heritage Dictionary describes cioppino simply as “A stew made with several kinds of fish and shellfish, tomatoes, and white wine.” Then adds: “Italian, perhaps a variant of northwest Italian ciuppin.” No mention of San Francisco.

My main man on just about anything gustatorial is the incomparable Waverley Root who wrote the authoritative twin volumes, The Food of France and The Food of Italy. Root never mentions cioppino, but traces brodetto, ciuppin, burrida, cassola, zimini, ghiotto, zuppa de pesce and, of course bouillabaisse, which he describes as “… the very ancient and very rich fish chowder said to have been invented in Athens and in any case spread throughout the Mediterranean by Greeks. …” There we have it, precursors and variations to what in North Beach is called cioppino.
And here I’ll add my two cents worth. Bouillabaisse is a soup, a fish soup or chowder. Cioppino is a fish stew.

All these noble elixirs include tomatoes in some way or another. Tomatoes were introduced to Europe in the 16th century from across the Atlantic in the New World. So, it figures that a fisherman in a small boat netted a mixed bag of Mediterranean fish and later boiled them up — perhaps even with a bit of seawater — and then threw in a few chopped tomatoes, onions and whatever else was at hand.    

While planning for this sketch on cioppino, I did considerable sampling in San Francisco restaurants and even some home cooking to see if I could get it right.

I can testify that admirable cioppinos are to be found in and around North Beach. I can give a vote of confidence to those at the Lorenzo’s North Beach Restaurant, Gigi’s Sotto Mare, the U.S. Restaurant, A. Sabella’s on Fisherman’s Wharf, and Caesar’s down on Bay Street that is justly proud of its cioppino brimming with Dungeness crab. I’m sure there are other establishments in the neighborhood that will offer a fine bowl of cioppino, but research is open to individual enterprise.
Perhaps this is more than you ever wanted to know about cioppino, but my defense is — cioppino is sublime.

Ernest Beyl loves a good fish soup or stew in all their variations. His favorite is cacciucco, which originated in Tuscany. It’s the muscle car of fish stews — much like cioppino but with a strong jolt of chili peppers.

Bookmark and Share Print Page

September 2011 Issue


Horse Shoe Tavern Amici's East Coast Pizzeria


Alfreds Alfred's Steakhouse

Bobos Bobo's

Franciscan The Franciscan


Getting to know the Reillys June Top Picks

Copyright © 2005 - 2008 NorthSide San Francisco