Seven years ago, when chefs Mario Batali and David Pasternack opened their New York restaurant Esca, they introduced Manhattan to what they called “crudo” -- Italian-style sliced raw fish. It was inspired by the carpaccio di pesce (sometimes referred to as pesce crudo or crudit? -- “crudo” means “raw”) served up and down Italy’s Adriatic coast, but it was ratcheted up -- delicate fluke was topped with briny sea beans and tiny radish slivers; raw scallops got a splash of tangerine oil; bluefish was spiked with chiles and perfumed with mint. New Yorkers went wild.
The basic concept of raw fish Italian-style wasn’t entirely new to Americans -- Italian chefs in L.A. had long been serving carpaccio di pesce. In 1998, Salvatore Marino had carpaccio di tonno Lampedusa -- thinly sliced raw tuna with hearts of palm and artichoke -- on his menu at Il Grano, which had opened the year before. Though he since has become L.A.'s resident crudo master -- as anyone who has tasted his gorgeous fantasia di crudo plate can attest -- somehow, the dish never caught on in a big way in L.A. It’s curious, considering the city’s love affair with sushi.
Now suddenly crudo is making a splash here. At Catch, the new restaurant at Santa Monica’s beachfront Hotel Casa del Mar, crudo is the centerpiece of chef Michael Reardon’s appetizer menu. Piero Selvaggio plans to unveil a crudo bar at his venerable Santa Monica restaurant, Valentino, by the end of the month. Chef David Lentz plans to feature crudo when he opens a 10-seat raw bar next to his Hollywood restaurant the Hungry Cat this fall. At Tre Venezie in Pasadena, chef Gianfranco Minuz offers a daily crudo special.
Trying it at home
And not a moment too soon, Pasternack has published a cookbook, “The Young Man & the Sea: Recipes and Crispy Fish Tales From Esca,” that shows how to make crudo at home.
You’d think crudo would be easy to make at home -- it’s often as simple as a few slices of fish with a touch of lemon and olive oil. But for the dish to work, you need to use great quality fish and know how to cut it. Pasternack’s book dispenses good advice on both.
But it’s a little trickier to take crudo to the next level. The best of them have a flavor accent -- it could be a different citrus juice, or even dried, powdered zest, or a vinegar. Or a sliver of fruit on top. Or a shaving of bottarga (dried mullet or tuna roe). A slice of scallop might get a bit of summer truffle. Instead of plain olive oil, you might use pistachio oil, or Meyer lemon-infused olive oil. In almost all cases you want to finish it with a few flakes of sea salt, and maybe freshly ground pepper.
“Keep it simple, buy great fish, practice restraint,” Pasternack says. “If you’re getting really great fish, why put 18 different things on it?”
Just back from a fishing trip that took him 110 miles off Montauk, New York, Pasternack says the fish he caught will determine what he’ll put on the menu that night. “I start with the fish, then what’s in season.” This can mean pairing albacore with caper berries, or fluke with sea beans and radishes. If he has black cod, he’ll match it with oil, flakes of sea salt, a splash of red wine vinegar and saba (grape juice cooked down to a viscous syrup).
For Catch’s Reardon, the inspiration for a crudo dish can come from either direction. “Sometimes you just get the whole dish in your head and you wait for the season to become available; sometimes you wait until you get the fish in your hands.”
In the four months since his restaurant’s been open, Reardon has created, he estimates, 40 different crudo dishes, among them mackerel with ginger juice and mustard oil, snapper with papaya and lime, and the one dish that’s always on the menu: kampachi with sea beans, aged soy sauce and sherry vinegar.
At Valentino, the crudo bar will be helmed by chef de cuisine Giacomo Pettinari, who attributes his knowledge of fish to his stint working as a sushi chef in Bangkok. In Italy, Pettinari had spent a year in Campania at Gennaro Esposito’s restaurant Torre del Saracino, known for carpaccio di pesce. “There I got my creativity,” Pettinari says.
Until the bar opens, he has been offering crudo specials, often two or three a night. Lately he’s been playing with sorbetti (ices), most recently pairing ahi with basil sorbetto and a thin slice of bottarga. He also likes the match-up of raw fish with fruit, such as branzino with cherries or halibut with a few dots of a fantastic lemon sauce Pettinari learned from Esposito.
Felicitously, a recipe for this very sauce appears in Faith Heller Willinger’s new cookbook, “Adventures of an Italian Food Lover.” Willinger, a noted author who lives in Florence, loved the sauce when she had it at Esposito’s restaurant, served simply with crudo. It’s an emulsified sauce made with candied lemon and orange peel, fresh lemon juice, olive oil and a little garlic and celery. It takes two days to make but involves less than an hour of active time, and the sauce can last as long as a few weeks. It’s brilliant with just about any kind of crudo. (Willinger also likes to serve it with simple grilled fish.)
So, how to begin? “First and foremost, buy fish from someone you trust,” says Providence chef Michael Cimarusti, who, like Pasternack, is a lifelong fisherman. Although Cimarusti doesn’t call it crudo, he always has a raw fish dish on his menu, such as kampachi with cucumber, pistachio and grapefruit. “Train your eye, and bring a cooler with some ice. Time and temperature abuse are the two biggest problems.” Select fish with firm muscle structure, and if the fish is whole, those with red gills and clear eyes.
Once you’re home, serve the fish as soon as is reasonably possible. If you chose to buy a whole fish, unless you’re practiced, have your fishmonger scale, clean and fillet and take the skin off the fish for you.
Making the cuts
Cut the fish while it’s cold, using a very sharp, long knife, not serrated. First cut the fillets in half lengthwise, Pasternack suggests, and then remove the tips so that you have uniform rectangular strips. Then cut the strips on the bias into 2-inch portions. Then slice the fish. Cut carefully and evenly in one motion (don’t saw, hence the long knife), making sure the slices are the same width at the top and the bottom.
How thinly you slice it -- as well as what you pair it with -- depends on what kind of fish you chose. A meaty, buttery fish such as tuna -- whether albacore, big eye, yellowfin or ahi -- will work best if sliced fairly thick, even up to half an inch. Opah, a Hawaiian fish that works beautifully for crudo -- Pasternack recommends pairing it with toasted almonds -- and is readily available on the West Coast, also does better as a thicker cut.
A fish such as yellowtail or halibut, with more intramuscular tissue, is best sliced more thinly, maybe a quarter inch. Fish such as fluke and sea bass should be slightly thinner than that. And for octopus, squid or cuttlefish, the slices should be very thin, about an eighth of an inch.
Once they’re sliced, refrigerate the portions, wrapped in plastic, until you want to serve them -- though the flavors come out best if the crudo is served closer to room temperature.
Like sashimi, crudo is a subtle dish, usually a prelude to a meal rather than a meal itself. A few slices of fish are all you need to a plate. Or, if you’re throwing a dinner party, consider different riffs on the same fish. If you have four slices of albacore, for instance, after drizzling them with olive oil, salt and pepper, you can pair one with a caper berry, top another with finely diced watermelon, drizzle the third with blood orange juice and top the last with a tiny mound of tapenade.
Pasternack cautions against plating the fish too early, warning that any lemon or other citrus will cook the fish like ceviche. Even if you plate at the very last minute, be sure to put the lemon on the plate first, especially with darker fish such as tuna, because the citrus will discolor the fish.
Above all, don’t try too hard, and don’t get fancy. As in the Hemingway novel that inspired the title of Pasternack’s book, in the end it’s just you and the fish.
The success of crudo is utterly dependent on the quality of the seafood used, so buy only the freshest sashimi-quality fish from your fish market. Because of the unpredictable nature of the catch, you should always call first, or even order ahead. If you do special order, or buy your fish at one of the downtown fish markets open to the public, you may have to buy the whole fish. If so, ask the fishmonger to clean, fillet and skin it, which most will do without charge. And either ask to have your fish packed in ice or bring a cooler.
For those concerned about sustainability and/or mercury levels of fish, there are helpful websites: the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch ( www.mbayaq.org) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Assn.'s new Fishwatch ( www.nmfs.noaa.gov/fishwatch).
International Marine Products downtown, where many chefs get their fish, is no longer open to the public.
Here are some good sources of crudo-quality fish:
Los Angeles Fish Co., 420 Stanford Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 629-1213.
Mitsuwa, five stores in Los Angeles and Orange counties; www.mitsuwa.com.
Marukai, five stores in Los Angeles and Orange counties; www.marukai.com.
Nijiya Market, five stores in Los Angeles County; www.nijiya.com.
Granada Market, 1820 Sawtelle Blvd., West Los Angeles; (310) 479-0931.
Quality Seafood, 130 S. International Boardwalk, Redondo Beach; (310) 374-2382.
Fish King, 722 N. Glendale Ave., Glendale; (818) 244-2161.
Santa Monica Seafood, 1205 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica; (310) 393-5244; and 154 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa; (949) 574-0274; www.smseafood.com.
Bristol Farms stores
Whole Foods stores