More than 30 years ago, I spent a month traveling in Sicily, hoping to find dishes that I could make at home and include in my new cookbook. It was an exercise in frustration. The island’s brilliant culinary skills were not yet reflected in its restaurants. On the other hand, the meals I had in private homes were sublime, but even more frustrating. Where in New York City, in the gastronomically parochial 1970s, would I find all the wild herbs, the fresh cheeses, the varieties of fish that my hosts were using?
On the last weekend of our trip, my husband, Victor, and I stopped in the resort town of Taormina, our thoughts focused on enjoying a lazy day or two of sun and sea. From its tables we expected little. “What is especially good here?” I asked the waiter at our first lunch. “The salmoriglio,” he said. “It’s our local swordfish, grilled and then moistened with olive oil, lemon juice and oregano.” I thought, What could go wrong? Nothing did, and nothing has since.
Salmoriglio never disappoints. I have made the dish for my family, for my friends, for my classes, for television and for this magazine; the times I have prepared it are beyond numbering. The flowing, uncooked sauce musters clear and vivid flavors from a thin slice of swordfish. Although salmoriglio cannot be surpassed, its principles can apply to equally delicious variations.
I owe my most recent version of salmoriglio to many sources: to the years I have lived in Venice, to the place I came from and to the place where I live now. From Venetian cooks, I have borrowed the ethereal scent of thyme, which they prefer to the pungency of oregano, and a fondness for using butter along with olive oil. From them, too, I have learned to use the gentler heat of the oven, which helps to retain moisture, as an alternative to the high heat of the grill. To further protect the fish from drying out, I’ve also adopted the practice of the fishermen in my native town, Cesenatico, who marinate their catch under olive oil–soaked bread crumbs. I add mustard to the sauce in fond recollection of a delicious Ada Boni recipe that Victor and I discovered more than half a century ago and made with one of our few wedding presents, a rare and precious lobster. In my Stateside life, I am drawn to some of the wonderful fish available here but largely unknown in Italy: wild salmon from the Pacific Northwest, Alaskan halibut, pink arctic char. Unfortunately, the markets are far from the seas where these fish are caught, so my first step in cooking, regardless of the preparation, is always the same: I give them a quick rinse with vinegar to wash away their travel fatigue.
Marcella Hazan, author of Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, is currently at work on a memoir with her husband, Victor.