The Signal Things of San Francisco: Cioppino

By John Birdsall | January 28, 2016
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tadich grill cioppino by dan bransfield

The man on the stool next to mine at Tadich is big and blotchy, staring down a hamburger steak camouflaged by onions on a thick oval plate. He’s propped a tablet computer open to email on the bar in front of him, and he’s halfway through his first Pinot Noir when he notices the waiter set down my lunch, a platter-sized bowl with a pair of garlic-toast appendages.

“Ah, cioppino,” Mr. Hamburger Steak says admiringly. “You can never go wrong with that.” 

If only this were true. 

Cioppino is a native San Francisco dish nobody in restaurants really understands or gets right. Maybe that’s because history makes us think of high school tests with date fields to fill in. Maybe it’s that a lot of San Franciscans—for a couple of generations now—grew up in Ohio or New Jersey, with no memory of North Beach nonnas or friends’ dads cooking cioppino at big messy parties they were forced to endure as kids, bored and slightly grossed out by shells and sloppy fingers. Whatever the reasons, cioppino these days is as troubled as California’s Dungeness crab fishery, bumped into a toxic state of shittiness via the algae of neglect, in a warming ocean of historical obscurity.

Boatloads of variations exist, but at heart, cioppino is some combination of Dungeness crab, mollusk and fin fish, quickly cooked in a heavily tomatoed braise with wine and aromatics. That’s it: messy to eat; reliant on the local Dungeness haul and canned tomatoes; super simple—it’s surprising anyone could fuck it up. But restaurants have applied all kinds of heinousness to cioppino, and for decades.

“This is a California dish with a noble history that is now tarnished by commercialism,” James Beard writes in James Beard’s Fish Cookery of 1954. “In recent years, a bastardized version has become standard fare in many seafood restaurants—one of those ‘specialties of the house’ resting for hours on a steam table.”

Take my lunch next to Mr. Hamburger Steak at Tadich Grill. No steam table, but it’s muddled—tomato sauce dominating, unyielding tail-on super-prawns, clams in the shell, dissolving Pacific rockfish. In the sauce, a textured base of tiny shrimp, and shreds of Washington Dungeness, since the local ban is still on, that are hard to see (“It’s in there,” the waiter assures me. “They just cook it down”). It’s cioppino rendered into an Italian-American red sauce dish. Canned tomato—instead of being a support for the seafood, an enhancement—has become the gross, distended and distorted heart of the thing. 

Is this an evolution, begun by Fisherman’s Wharf restaurants in the Beard era, of cost-cutting—adding green peppers and mushrooms, carrots and celery (none of which is apparent, I should point out, in the Tadich version) to clutter it up so less seafood fits? You almost wonder where the spaghetti is.

The garlic toast is the final thunk of the casket lid. It’s subpar (Boudin)—too finely textured, too one-dimensionally sour, smeared with something that doesn’t taste quite as innocent as split raw garlic cloves.

Cioppino’s origins are in a San Francisco that ceased any kind of literal life a long time ago. In The Food of Italy (1971), Waverley Root mentions a Ligurian fish chowder, ciuppin, which inevitably, though Root doesn’t say this, is the soup that serves as local cioppino’s rootstock. 

The mythology of cioppino is that it comes from the fishing boats (feluccas of ancient design) of first- and second-generation Genoese immigrants not long after 1850. Erica J. Peters, in San Francisco: A Food Biography, writes of the scuffling clans of Italian fishermen, organized by the regions in Italy they traced their roots to. Some stayed out in their boats for days, cooking cioppino from part of the catch on makeshift braziers with (Peters writes) “lard, onions, garlic, chiles and tomatoes.” Some accounts note how it was simultaneously moistened and salted with seawater.

By 1915, year of the Pan-Pacific International Exposition, cioppino had made it into an establishment cookbook. Its reputation as a local specialty had gelled into something that expressed the bohemian and international (though heavily “Latin”—what we now call Mediterranean) flavor of San Francisco. In other words, it was already—a hundred years ago—a set piece, a dish with a prescribed meaning everyone knew. And there’s nothing like a set piece to get tweaked, fancied up or reinvented, all in the name of restoring authenticity.

In Helen Brown’s West Coast Cook Book of 1952, Pasadena-based cookbook author Helen Evans Brown (a friend and occasional collaborator of Beard’s) references Bazzuro’s—a restaurant on a boat anchored off Fisherman’s Wharf as early as the 1850s, when San Francisco Bay was choked with ships abandoned for the gold hills, that claimed to be cioppino’s inventor. Brown says she refuses to believe Bazzuro’s invented cioppino, but the questionable claim shows the dish was both famous and mysterious enough to spark a single-source creation story. 

The truth is, restaurants never really understood cioppino. They made it bend to some midcentury model of bouillabaisse, cooked the sauce too long or lost the purity of Dungeness in a complication of elements. Cioppino is properly a home dish, or not even a dish but a big, seasonal gesture that should last hours and stain shirts and leave fingers stinky for a day or more, even after frictional washing. 

dungeness crab missing by dan bransfield

Cioppino’s focus should be the tension between the delicate protein sweetness of Dungeness and the darker, muddier taste of its fat and the tomalley of its liver and pancreas. Other things fished from the sea can go in the pot (clams in the shell are nice; long-cooked halibut adds body to the broth). The other elements should all support this essential Dungeness duality: canned tomato (not concentrated by long cooking), white wine, some grappa, garlic, lemon zest, a whole dried chile and parsley. The ideal moistening agent is meat stock, not beef broth from an aseptic carton (use plain water before that), but a complex and reasonably deep-tasting Italian-style mixed-meat brodo.

As a kid, I knew cioppino as a January party. My Italian-American godmother, Gloria, spent a couple of days getting ready, calling my mom to tell her how the shopping was going, how many crabs she got for how much a pound, if she was planning to add halibut to thicken, as she put it, the broth. 

On cioppino day, you all sat around a table covered with a plastic wipeable cloth and ate round after round in the bowl. Adults praised you for how much you ate, how deftly you used the terminal pointed finger of the walking legs to pick the meat out of the body chambers.

I remember a cioppino party at Mae’s (Mae was Gloria’s mother), in a big, dark house in South San Francisco. We all sat around Mae’s heavy carved table in the dining room. Mae stayed in the kitchen, a big woman in a flowered apron who hardly spoke and never sat. Instead, she hustled in and out through the swinging kitchen door, hauling in the pot for refills and emptying boneyards (the bowls scattered around the table to hold shattered crab shells and sucked-out claws).

Henry Evans (1918–1990) was a print artist and rare-book dealer, owner of the Porpoise Bookshop at 308 Clement in the Inner Richmond. In the 1950s Evans authored booklets illustrated with old woodcuts and filled with obscure and sensational history (he calls one of them, Curious Lore of San Francisco’s Chinatown, “the only authentic and frank handbook to the strangest city-within-a-city in America”). In San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf (1957), Evans describes a mid-20th-century version of fishing-boat cioppino.

“One of the richest gastronomic experiences a person can have,” he writes, “and few aside from fishermen are ever lucky enough to have it, is to be treated to a cioppino made on the boat, as the fish are caught. Fresh? Almost still wiggling. Break off a piece of good bread (fine for sopping up that last bit of juice) and pour yourself a glass (or more likely a mug) of some good white wine, and you have a feast that will never be forgotten. This sort of salty-rolling repast will be accompanied sometimes by snatches from Italian operas, which are sung with loving gusto if not with technical perfection.”

Cioppino, then, is a feeling, a salty-rolling experience of eating close to the sea. It expresses something essential about San Francisco’s place in the world, its history and its setting. It should be attempted—at home—with loving gusto and some understanding, or not at all.

RECIPE: MAE'S CRAB CIOPPINO

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