Alici alla Scapece: Tiny Fish, Big on Flavor & Long on History

a method by many names

a method by many names

Alla scapece is the southern Italian term for an ancient preservation method, one used for centuries throughout the Mediterranean region, which consists of frying small fish such as sardines or anchovies then sealing them in a marinade of oil, spices, and lemon or vinegar. Alla scapece, together with the Venetian in soar (as in sarde or pesse in soar), pesciolini in carpione of the Lakes Region in Lombardy, and escabeche in Spain, Portugal, parts of Southern France, and Northern Africa, all derive from the Persian sikbaj (or al-sikbaj), described by John Dickie in Delizia! as ‘a sweet and tangy Persian stew […] that became popular in much of the Muslim world.’ In his book The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, Daniel Jurafsky traces the evolution of sikbaj from its origins as a centuries-long favorite in the Arab world to its eventual morphing into the classic fish & chips of today. The link, interestingly, between these two distant relatives is the method of frying (in the case of sikbaj it was meat, not fish) then marinating in vinegar.  Apparently this is why we serve batter-fried fish with vinegar!

Okay, history lesson’s over. I tried alici alla scapece for the first time last year on the breathtaking island of Ponza, as a guest of chef Oreste Romagnolo, who runs not one but two amazing restaurants on the island—Orèstorante and Orèsteria (both establishments’ names are plays on their founder’s first name + ristorante and osteria, respectively). In Romagnolo’s version, the anchovies are fried then marinated in vinegar, olive oil, rosemary, garlic, and mint. Served chilled, these anchovies were nothing like what you expect when…well, when eating an anchovy. Delicate, savory, not overly-fishy, and not too salty.

Romagnolo, an avid sailor, hails from Avellino. He’s been based on Ponza since 1995, the year he opened Orèstorante with his wife, Valentina, a sommelier and pastry chef. Some years ago he published a monograph, Orèstorante: Isola di Ponza 1995 – 2005 (out of print and virtually impossible to find) in collaboration with photographer Adriano Bacchella. Though a bit off topic, I simply cannot conclude this post without referring you to Bacchella’s site to get a glimpse of his stunning photography. And if you ever make it to Ponza, be sure to find one or both of Oreste Romagnolo’s incomparable restaurants. The man knows his fish.

A sign for Orèsteria, run by Oreste, who also owns Orèstorante, both located on Ponza