Local Favorite: Cioppino
I’m not Italian-American, but I grew up loving cioppino, the hearty shellfish stew that’s one of San Francisco’s greatest contributions to culinary history. You rarely see this dish outside of the city, which is such a shame. Invented by Bay Area fishermen, many of whom hailed from Genoa, Italy, in the 19th century, the dish takes its name from the word in Genoese dialect that means “little soup.” But cioppino is hardly little: it’s made with all kinds of seafood simmered with lots of tomatoes and wine. While you won’t find the exact same dish anywhere in Italy, it’s similar to many shellfish soups, from cacciucco to brodetto to bouillabaisse, you encounter up and down the Mediterranean coast.
Back in the 1940s and ’50s, my parents were new Californians—migrants from the East Coast who settled in the largely Italian neighborhood of North Beach, where cioppino was the pinnacle of the local menu—heaps of clams, mussels, briny prawns, and sweet small shrimp, and chunks of flaky fish. We used to go to a now-long-gone restaurant that gave you a paper bib and served the soup in a big cauldron; it came with lots of sourdough bread, which is the perfect foil for the brick-red broth. You’d sop it up, and use your fingers to extract sweet meat from the shellfish. Dad made it at home, too, with whatever shellfish he could find at the supermarket or fishmonger’s. The dish is so direct, it defies pretension or turning it into some arty, froufrou thing. It’s fantastic and its ours.