Except for ordering a cappuccino or a caffellatte after your dinner, nothing is more likely to raise the ire of your Italian waiter than to ask for some grated parmesan to go on your spaghetti alle vongole or pasta al baccala’.
So, as you drive down Interstate 5 munching on your Filet o’ Fish with extra cheese, remember the Italian Food Rule: No Cheese On Fish.
The reasons for the rule are: logic, location, and tradition. But can there be change on the horizon?
Except for salt cod (baccala’), canned tuna, cured sardines and anchovies (acciughe), Italians believe fish should be eaten fresh, as close to the place and time that it is caught. Fish from the seas and rivers of Italy is mild tasting, delicate and needs to be treated with a light touch when it comes to seasoning. The milky saltiness of cheese will overwhelm the flavor of the fish. And fishy cheese is just hard to contemplate, much less swallow.
But, you might argue, what about all of those strong flavors that are acceptable when cooking fish: capers, lemon, tomato, rosemary, fennel, olive, garlic, etc.?
Italian cheese producing regions tends to be inland and landlocked: parmesan in the north, pecorino in the hills of Tuscany, and buffalo mozzarella to the east and south of Naples. Famed for fish are the Ligurian, Sicilian, Adriatic and Tuscan coastal towns. Italians have been living the Slow Food, zero kilometer lifestyle for centuries, not decades. The recipes celebrate the location and availability of fresh ingredients: where there is fish there isn’t cheese and visa versa.
Location and tradition meet in the recipes passed down for generations. Italians don’t move far from their places of birth and those places were city-states just 150 years ago. In Livorno, they argue over the types of shellfish and saltwater fish that should go into cacciucco (cheese never enters the discussion). As far as I know, in Bologna everyone is comfortable with adding more cheese on top of a cheesy sauce covering ravioli stuffed with cheese, but no one thinks of filling their ravioli with fish.
Also, for centuries, tradition dictated that meat and dairy products were forbidden on Friday for religious reasons. Fish was the symbolic and nutritional replacement, but heaven forbade a topping of cheese.
Say It Ain’t So
The Italian Food Rule – No Cheese on Fish – sparks lively debates in the U.S. Da Silvano, a famous NYC restaurant has printed on the menu, “No cheese served on fish at any time.” A couple of years ago, competing chef Chuck Hughes was criticized on Iron Chef America when he combined lobster with cheese curds in a poutine (of course, that’s a French dish and what do they know?).
But then there is the guy on the Thinking With Your Stomach blog who came up with a tuna and melted cheese grilled sandwich.
Last year, in Bra, Italy, home of the Slow Food movement, at their Cheese 2011 conference one of my favorite seafood chefs, Luciano Zazzeri of La Pineta (on a Tuscan seaside beach) presented a class on matching cheese with fish.
The wry Robert Trachtenberg, writing Just Grate in the NY Times, found the oldest surviving “Sicilian recipe — from around 400 B.C. — for fish: ‘Gut. Discard the head, rinse, slice; add cheese and oil.’” He also browbeat famous chefs in Rome and Venice until they admitted to serving fish pastas with cheese added in the kitchen.
Trachtenberg quotes the famed cookbook author Nancy Harmon Jenkins, who speaks the truth when she said, “‘One of the great things about Italy is they love making rules. And they obey very few.’”
Italian Food Rules by Ann Reavis is available now. You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links: