What Is Seafood Cioppino?

Jerry Morrison

Seafood cioppino is an Italian-American fish stew first prepared in the late 19th century by immigrant fishermen who settled in the San Francisco Bay area. The catch of the day, typically crab, shrimp, clams, muscles and a firm white fish, is cooked with onions, garlic, tomatoes and wine. Seafood cioppino is traditionally served with toasted sourdough bread.

Seafood cioppino can be made with Dungeness crab.
Seafood cioppino can be made with Dungeness crab.

Though not an Italian dish, seafood cioppino bears a passing resemblance to traditional regional Italian fish stews such as cacciucco from Livorno and buridda from Liguria. Like the many types of seafood soups of the Mediterranean, the flavor profile of the dish reflects the native species of seafood locally available. In the case of seafood cioppino, the sweet, delicately flavored Dungeness crab is distinctive. What defines cioppino, however, is the freshness and variety of seafood that finds its way into the pot. This is not a dish usually made from leftover or frozen seafood.

Seafood cioppino is traditionally served with toasted sourdough bread.
Seafood cioppino is traditionally served with toasted sourdough bread.

Preparation of seafood cioppino will involve a trip to the local fish market to select a variety of the freshest seafood available. No specific seafood is required or prohibited, though a firm white fish can produce the best results. If crab is not available, it can be omitted, or lobster can be used as a substitute. The seafood is traditionally served in the shell after cooking in a tomato-based broth with onions, garlic, olive oil, herbs and wine. For convenience, the dish can be served with the seafood removed from the shell.

Tomatoes and onions are often added to seafood cioppino.
Tomatoes and onions are often added to seafood cioppino.

The term "cioppino" is said to derive from the Italian word ciuppin, which in the dialect of Genoa refers to any type of fish stew or seafood soup. Presumably, Italian immigrants from the Liguria region brought this reference with them. "Cioppino" might have developed as an idiom in the working language of San Francisco commercial fishermen, who were largely of Italian or Portuguese lineage.

A more fanciful tale proposes that the term is derived from dockside calls to "chip in" to a common pot from the daily catch. The call to contribute became "chip-in-o" because of the native accents of the fishermen. In time, cioppino became the standard name for the dish.

Though the name "cioppino" might be a product of American culture the dish itself is derived from a culinary tradition common to the Mediterranean basin. The making of fish soups and stews is widespread in seafaring societies. Recipes change to fit the environment. San Francisco seafood cioppino is the result of a diverse population, cultural culinary tradition and the incorporation of local resources.

Onions and garlic may be added to seafood cioppino.
Onions and garlic may be added to seafood cioppino.

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