Savory Seafood Stew

This image courtesy of Joseph DeLeo

The traditional zuppa di pesce that you most likely encountered in Italian-American restaurants was based on garlic and tomato sauce, which was simmered along with assorted fish to make a savory dish. Sometimes the sauce was used to dress pasta, and the shellfish and fin fish would be enjoyed as a second course. This version is more in a brodetto style, lighter and clearer than the traditional version, with saffron as a flavoring ingredient. This kind of preparation can be found with slight variations along the entire coast of Italy from Liguria to the Adriatic coast to the heel, Puglia, and the island of Sicily. I have given you the recipe with fish fillets, although traditionally zuppa di pesce is made with slices of whole fish with bones and skin intact. But it is tricky to eat that way, even though the flavor is more complex.

NotesTo Clean Leeks

1 Hold the leek by the root end and shave away the tough outer green leaves with a knife.

2 Continue until you are down to the pale-green center leaves. Don't through away the dark-green leaves; use them to flavor chicken or meat stock, or to form the base for a vegetable stock.

3 Trim off the roots, then cut the white, yellow, and light-green parts in half lengthwise. Cut the leeks as described in the recipe--chopped or sliced into thin or thick semicircles. 

Wash the sliced leeks in abundant water, changing the water once. Give the grit a minute or two to settle to the bottom, then fish the leeks out of the water with your fingers or a wire skimmer. Drain the leeks thoroughly in a colander before cooking with them.

Makes6 generous servings

Cooking Methodstewing


Total Timeunder 1 hour

OccasionCasual Dinner Party

Recipe Coursemain course

Dietary Considerationegg-free, gluten-free, lactose-free, peanut free, soy free, tree nut free


Taste and Texturegarlicky, herby, juicy, sweet

Type of Dishfish soup


  • 2 quarts water
  • One 35-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes (preferably San Marzano) and their liquid
  • 1½ cups dry white wine
  • 2 small leeks, white parts only, trimmed, cleaned, and cut into 3-inch lengths (about 2 cups) (see Note)
  • 2 medium carrots, trimmed and sliced thick
  • 1 large onion, cut into thick slices
  • 10 sprigs fresh thyme
  • Zest of ½ lemon, removed in wide strips with a vegetable peeler
  • ½ teaspoon loosely packed saffron threads
  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 8 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 2 small leeks, white parts only, trimmed, cleaned, and sliced 1/2 inch thick (about 2 cups) (see Note)
  • 1 large onion, sliced thin
  • 4 medium calamari(about 1¼ pounds), cleaned  tentacles left whole, bodies cut crosswise into ½-inch rings
  • 18 medium sea scallops (about 1/2 pound)
  • 8 ounces fresh firm-textured fish fillets, such as salmon, snapper, or swordfish, skin removed, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 2 cups Braised Cannellini, optional
  • 24 mussels, preferably cultivated, cleaned
  • 12 large shrimp, peeled and deveined (about ½ pound)
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Pan-Fried Garlic Bread or crusty Italian bread


  1. To make the soup base, combine the water, tomatoes, wine, leeks, carrots, onion, thyme, lemon zest, and saffron in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a lively simmer and cook until reduced by about one third, about 45 minutes. Stir in ¼ cup olive oil, season the mixture lightly with salt, and continue to simmer until the liquid portion of the soup base is reduced to about 8 cups, about 20 minutes. Strain the soup base into a 3-quart saucepan and keep it warm over low heat. Discard the solids. (The soup base may be prepared up to 3 days in advance and refrigerated.)

  2. If you have prepared the soup base in advance, bring it to a simmer in a medium saucepan. Adjust the heat to very low and keep warm. Heat ¼ cup olive oil in a large (about 8-quart), heavy pot over medium heat. Add the garlic, leeks, and onion and cook, stirring, until the onion is wilted but still crunchy, about 4 minutes. Add the calamari and cook, stirring, until they turn opaque, about 2 minutes. Pour in all but 1 cup of the hot soup base and bring to a boil. Stir in the scallops, fish fillets, and beans, if using. Adjust the heat to simmering and cook until the seafood is barely opaque at the center, about 5 minutes.

  3. Meanwhile, add the mussels to the soup base remaining in the saucepan. Increase the heat to high, cover the saucepan, and steam over medium heat, shaking the pan occasionally, until the mussels open, about 3 minutes.

  4. Stir the shrimp, parsley, and steamed mussels into the large pot of soup. Simmer until the shrimp is cooked through, about 1 minute. Check the seasoning, adding salt, if necessary, and pepper. Ladle into warm soup bowls, passing a basket of the bread of your choice separately.


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