Spigola all’Acqua Pazza (Seabass in Crazed Water)

Originally a Neapolitan dish, this simple fish recipe has gained great popularity in Rome. Times past, Neapolitan fishermen would set out to sea to bring in their catch, a process that took many hours. So they went equipped with olive oil, garlic, chilli peppers and a few tomatoes in order to make a good meal aboard. The least valuable fish caught would be cooked straight from the sea on the hot rims of their acetylene lamps, using salty sea water “maddened” by the garlic and chilli. Today the waters of the Mediterranean have too many other additives and are best kept in their proper place!

The recipe is very simple and unbelievably good, but it does need to be cooked at the last minute. I usually cook it between courses, and get the guests to fillet the fish as I bring them to table. On one memorable occasion enough wine had circulated to inspire the men to remove their jackets and have an impromptu competition to see who could fillet the seabass with most speed and panache. Flushed with success and very pleased with themselves they turned round to see one of the women already serving her neatly dissected fish.

You must do this dish with good fresh fish, and remember the small tomatoes should stay reasonably fleshy in the sauce, not made into a puree. If you prefer to use filleted fish, ask for the carcass and boil this in plain, lightly salted water for 15 minutes first to make the “crazed water”.

2 sea bass, cleaned
4 teaspoons of extra virgin olive oil
8 tasty cherry tomatoes, split
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 dried chilli pepper, crushed
1 teaspoon fresh chopped parsley

In a large, shallow pan heat the oil and add the garlic, chilli and fish.
Season the fish and after a few minutes pour in two cups of cold water.
Add the tomatoes and using the back of a wooden spoon squash them against the sides of the pan.
Sprinkle in the parsley, cover and cook gently until the fish are done. The exact time will depend on the size of the fish.
Carefully remove the fish to avoid breaking and remove the flesh from the bone.
Serve with spoonfuls of cooking liquid, leaving the tomato skins in the pan.


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