Keeping the Fish in the Cacciucco

Livorno’s signature dish

Cacciucco: Photo from Labronicus.Blogspot.comCacciucco: Photo from Labronicus.Blogspot.comThe most famous of Livornese dishes is undoubtedly Cacciucco (kah-CHOO-koh), a sturdy Mediterranean fish stew made, according to tradition, with five varieties of fish, one for every  ‘c’ in its name.

Almost every fish restaurant in Livorno features Cacciucco on its menu BUT, according to some, it is becoming more and more difficult to find  the genuine article. The dish has been taken from and added to , redesigned beyond recognition in order to suit modern tastes, so that many of the supposed Cacciuccos being served up today may be delicious in their own right, but have little in common with the original recipe.

So what IS a ‘real’ Cacciucco? I talked to local food and wine journalist Claudio Mollo who has recently founded the Cacciucco Association in order to promote and protect the origins of this classic Livornese dish.

The term ‘Cacciucco’ derives from a Turkish word Kϋçϋk (‘small’) which refers to the modest size of the fish used to make the dish. Originally Cacciucco was made with those fish left over after a catch, the so-called pesce povero or ‘poor fish’ because they were more difficult to sell and would be sold more cheaply or often taken home at the end of the day by the fisherman himself. 
The fish stew would be made with octopus, squid, and bony fish like the less than pretty scorfano nero (black scorpionfish), pesce prete (Atlantic stargazer), gallinella (Tub Gurnard), palombo (dogfish), and tracina (weeverfish).  Mantis prawns were also added.  Its base was tomato, garlic, chilli, red wine and often fresh sage. It was a hearty working man’s dish with a rich fishy flavour.

It wasn’t until much later, at the end of the 19th century, that Cacciucco began to be appreciated by the bourgeois classes who modified the origins of the dish to suit their tastes. They could afford more expensive varieties of fish, so added those. Shell fish such as prawns and mussels were also thrown in, so that the humble Cacciucco was dressed up beyond recognition.

A Boneless Cacciucco, by chef Maurizio MarsiliA Boneless Cacciucco, by chef Maurizio MarsiliToday’s chefs often say that the ‘modern’ version of Cacciucco reflects current trends in eating out, and that customers are reluctant to tackle bony fish. So their Cacciucco contains fewer and fewer fish, and more and more shellfish. Still delicious, of course, but a far cry from its humble beginnings.

Some years ago the people of Livorno demonstrated their attachment to their signature dish when food giant Buitoni launched a ready-made frozen version – containing cod -  of the traditional Livornese recipe. The ‘Cacciucco War’ broke out between outraged locals and the food company, and the Mayor of Livorno appeared on TV to denounce the product.

The Cacciucco Association aims to bring together a collection of recipes to document the Cacciucco tradition and to try and protect its origins. It also hopes to involve a number of local restaurants who will offer a dish resembling the original Cacciucco, with lots of bony, but tasty, fish. 

Of course, the alternative versions will survive, due to popular demand. Which is fine, just as long as we can all get along peacefully and avoid any more ‘wars’! Let every diner choose their side, and sit back and enjoy Livorno's most famous fish dish.
For just one of the many variations on the Cacciucco recipe, click here

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