We are officially back in Italy and after invoking the name of Saint Rita, suffering the drudgery of the Cote D'azure and arriving in Sanremo, we have a recipe for Orata.
After a hair-raising drive down the Napoleon Route and through the Maritime Alps, Giuseppe and I arrived in Sanremo two days ago. Our half-baked travel planning resulted in a screwy journey through slushy conditions 1800 meters above sea level in the height of winter. We had no snow chains, but we did have according to my count: exactly two bottles of Riesling, four walnuts and a block of foie gras.
Around the time my butt warmer stopped working and our old BMW convertible started swerving, I wondered if we might have a little Donner party situation on our hands. Giuseppe invoked the name of Saint Rita. I contemplated fashioning a shiv out of a twig in the car. And somehow, aided by Saint Rita, cigarillos and the plaintive crooning of Serge Gainsborg, Giuseppe maneuvered the car out of the Alps and finally to Grasse.
We spent exactly five minutes there to admire the views of Cannes, buy perfume and take shots of Ricard to steady our nerves. Immediately thereafter I insisted we flee the Cote D’Azur tout de suite. We drove at break neck speed out of the ticky tacky Cannes, appreciating remarkable specimens of 1970s style architecture and, after a brief comfort break at a McDonald’s in Nice, we raced towards Sanremo.
A jewel of the Ligurian Coast, Sanremo is the antithesis of Cannes: calm, decidedly uncommercial and thoroughly Italian. It also happens to be filled with perfectly coiffed old ladies who parade around ocean promenades in full mink coats. These old ladies rule the town and so naturally, I love Sanremo as fervently as I detest Cannes.
Another reason to love Sanremo is the seafood: namely Orata and Branzino. After surviving the Alps and grumbling through Cannes, Giuseppe and I headed straight to Sanremo’s harbor. There we located a quaint restaurant, curiously named Flippers, to order Orata and a bottle of the local Vermentino. The restaurant’s proprietor kindly shared his recipe for Orata in Cartoccio (Orata in paper packets) with us and now we happily share it with you.
The key to this recipe’s preparation is simplicity and quality. There are few ingredients but each should be chosen with care. You will have best results if you use Ligurian olive oil and a Ligurian Vermentino wine. If you find these items too difficult to locate, use any good quality extra virgin olive oil and dry white wine of general repute (I am all for putting Two Buck Chuck to great culinary use, but this is just not the recipe for it).
Additionally, you will need to find a good quality whole white fish. Orata and Branzino are best and can generally be purchased at Whole Foods or often at fish markets. You could also use monkfish filet, cod or even halibut. If you are really stuck, you can use Tilapia—the old broads in Sanremo would be indignant, but I won’t tell if you don’t
The technique of preparing fish in ‘cartoccio’ is simple, but requires attention with cooking times. If you overcook your fish it will be rubbery. Generally for Orata or Branzino, 30 minutes of cooking time is sufficient. The paper packet gently steams your fish, locks in flavor and creates in a light, natural sauce with which to serve your fish. I suggest using parchment paper as the cooking paper. Some use foil, but foil can often react with the wine and turn your fish a chemical hew of blue.
To really make this meal a Ligurian experience, I suggest serving with a Vermentino wine. It is light, refreshing and will transport you directly to Sanremo where seafood is abundant and old ladies rule.
Note: This recipe is for two moderately hungry people. We usually eat the fish as a second course after the traditional Italian first course of pasta. One whole Branzino or Orata will generally feed two. If you would like to serve more, just prepare additional fish packets. If you are serving a filet of fish, I suggest one fish filet per person.
- 1 Whole Branzino or Orata (should weigh around 1.5 and 2 pounds—ask your fish monger to scale the fish and remove its viscera)
- 2 Teaspoons sea salt
- Ground Pepper
- 1 Tablespoon Italian flat leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
- 3 Whole parsley fronds
- 1 Tablespoon good quality dry oregano
- 1/3 cup Vermentino or other dry white wine
- 3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 15 Grape tomatoes
- 10 Whole black olives
- 2 garlic cloves, sliced thinly on the diagonal
- 1 potato, cut into 1/2 “ cubes and parboiled for 15 minutes
- Lemon wedges
- Parchment paper
- Pre-heat oven to 375.
- Pat fish dry with paper towels.
- Rub fish with salt and pepper.
- Place fish on parchment paper and cut paper to accommodate fish (you will need a large square which you will use to tightly wrap you fish; the size will vary based on the size of fish you use).
- Sprinkle chopped parsley and dry oregano over and around fish. Stuff the fish cavity with whole parsley fronds.
- Drizzle the fish with olive oil and white wine.
- Scatter olives, tomatoes, potatoes and garlic over and around the fish and inside the fish cavity. Ensure they are coated with olive oil/ wine mixture.
- Close your fish packet tightly as if wrapping a present. (If your fish packet more closely resembles a tootsie roll, that is if fine- just ensure the packet is tightly closed.)
- Cook fish for 30 minutes (if it weighs 1.5 pounds) and 40 minutes i(f it weighs closer to 2 lbs) and remove from oven.
- Pierce the paper with a knife and gently open the packet.
- Add a few squirts of lemon juice over the fish and place the fish in its packet on a large platter.
- Serve family style with lemon wedges and bread.