The best seafood pasta I've ever made
Zembi d'arzillo, a rare pasta perfumed by the sea
So it is *maybe* a big call, but in 12 years of writing about food, cooking and sharing regional Italian recipes, this just might be the best dish I’ve made so far: fish ravioli with a clam and tomato sauce.
It’s the name that got me: zembi d’arzillo. Words I’d never heard before and no Tuscan I asked knew what they were. It turns out it’s because it’s a Ligurian dish and being regional, the name is too. I found it in a little gem of a book published in the 1970s, bound in green linen with no photographs, just some charming, bright illustrations (by American artist John Alcorn) at the chapter openings: Il Codice della Pasta written by the Abruzzese gastronome Vincenzo Buonassisi (1918-2004).
It was for the latest piece for my Cucina Letteraria column (a column where I go looking through old cookbooks for wonderful little recipes like this one — yes, a dream gig for this food history nerd) for Corriere della Sera’s monthly Cook liftout. I thought this was too good not to share this with you (in English) here too.
With a little research I found out that zembi comes from an Arabic name for quite specific baskets woven with palm fronds used for fishing, a hint at the centuries old Arabic influence of Genova’s port. And arzillo (or arziglio as Buonassisi spells it) is a Ligurian word for the perfume of the sea, namely that fresh seaside smell given off from green algae that grows near the rocky coastline. For this reason the fish used in this pasta is traditionally the fish that Italians call, ‘pesce di scoglio’ — rock fish, though any white fish could be used here if it is easier to find (in fact Buonassisi asks for sea bass). Oh — and then there are arselle, wedge clams, that are steamed open and added to the garlicky, tomato sauce.
The key, I think, to this dish — and the one thing I slightly altered in the recipe — is to cook the whole fish directly in the sauce. The fish is used to fill the pasta with, the leftover sauce becomes unctuous and rich because the whole thing — bones and fins and all, have lent flavour and gelatin to the sauce. It is really the most delicious and resourceful dish.
I will be straight up with you — this isn’t the easiest preparation, but it’s really not too tricky either, the ravioli shape is fairly simple and I simplified it by making the sauce and filling a one pot preparation (Buonassisi has you making the fish in one pot, then making a separate sauce, and then opening the clams in another… he obviously didn’t have to worry about the washing up).
But also honestly, if you can’t be bothered with the ravioli, then this would actually be a really quick and delicious sauce for serving with your favourite dried pasta or even one pot stew (put everything in a pan, cold, and just cover and turn the heat on - 10 minutes, it’s done)*. If you are up for a fresh pasta project with little helpers or want to make something that will whisk you away to the Ligurian coast for the very special people in your lives, then this is an absolutely delectable way to spend an afternoon and I can assure you every minute will be worthwhile when you taste this!
For the pasta:
250 g tipo 00 flour
60 ml white wine
For the filling and the sauce:
600 g whole rock fish such as gurnard, mullet, scorpion fish (or go for any not too large, whole white fish you can get — orata or sea bream would still be lovely, as would branzino, sea bass)
500 g live clams
60 ml olive oil
2 tablespoons grated parmesan**
400 g tinned tomatoes
250 ml dry white wine
2 cloves garlic
parsley leaves, finely chopped
salt and pepper
Make the pasta by kneading the flour, egg and white wine until you have a very smooth and elastic dough. Let it rest for 30 minutes covered. You can also do this overnight.
While you’re doing that, rinse the clams and place them in a shallow tray covered with salted water (it should be fairly salty, like the sea). Let them purge for 30 minutes in a cool place.
To make the sauce, place the whole fish in a pan (do all this off the heat, in a cold pan, couldn’t be easier!) and add the garlic, pour over it half of the olive oil, half of the white wine, the tomatoes (chop or squish them a bit), and a good pinch of salt and freshly cracked pepper. Now place a lid on top and turn the heat on to medium — let simmer for about 10 minutes. Check that the fish is cooked by poking a knife down the spine — the fish should come away easily from the bone. Remove the whole fish, setting the sauce aside for now, and carefully remove the skin, head, fins and tail — you should be able to pull away the fish fillets from the spine without getting too many of the bones, but discard these as you come across them.
*[Ok, if you want to do a quick sauce for dried pasta and skip the ravioli all together, I would do exactly this except after pulling the fish apart, would flake this back into the sauce and add the clams directly in here to steam open for a couple extra minutes, that’s it, toss with the parsley and your favourite pasta — mine? I’d do paccheri or rigatoni here!]
For the filling, blend the white fish in a food processor with the egg and the parmesan (**Buonassisi calls for a lot more parmesan but I found that the flavour was overpowering and in the end it wasn’t necessary for the consistency of the filling, which was firm even without too much cheese). This can keep in the fridge this way for a few days if you want to do it ahead.
To finish the sauce, pull out the clams from their salt water and you have two choices for opening them: you can do the 1 pan version and just place them directly in the sauce and heat until they open, about 2 minutes or so (if you don’t mind getting your hands dirty to remove the clam meat) or you can place them in a wide skillet, add the rest of the olive oil, the rest of the white wine and place over a high heat for 1-2 minutes, shaking the pan to redistribute the clams so that they all get a chance to open. Now, remove the clam meat and add these and the liquid left in the pan (strained) to the sauce. Set aside. You can do this part the day before if you need to.
Now to make the ravioli: On a floured surface, divide the dough in two, keeping one piece covered. Roll out the dough to 1mm thickness in a pasta machine (or with elbow grease, a rolling pin). Roll out little balls of the filling about the size of a cherry and place these along one edge of the pasta sheet about an inch apart (2.5cm). Fold the pasta over to cover the filling and press down gently (best to go in one direction and carefully push any air bubbles out as you go), then with a frilled pastry cutter, cut the ravioli into not-too-large rectangles or squares. Repeat with the rest of the dough until you have used up all the filling. Place the finished ravioli on a sheet of parchment paper dusted with flour or semolina to keep them from sticking as you are making the ravioli.
Make sure your guests are seated at this point.
To paraphrase Elizabeth David, fresh pasta waits for no one!
When ready to eat, get a large pot of lightly salted water to a simmer. Heat the sauce, don’t overcook it but you do want to keep it warm and it may need a little bit of reducing if the clams let out a lot of liquid, so about 2 minutes of quite fast simmering should do it. Make sure to taste the sauce and adjust if you need for salt and pepper, if needed (the clams can be quite salty depending on where they come from). In the meantime cook the ravioli — they will only need 1 minute.
Fish them out of the pot with a slotted spoon or a spider and place them directly in the hot, unctuous sauce to coat, then plate them, sprinkling over some parsley.