Fritto misto

One of the funny things about Italian gastronomy is that it comes with a set of truisms, a number of firm beliefs that certain foodstuffs, and certain ways of eating, have existed here since the dawn of time. They are part of our “tradition”, our heritage, and are therefore fixed and immutabole. Any kind of research, however, gives the lie to this, showing that most famous “traditional” Italian dishes have only been around for a few decades, and have often won their fame thanks to the Americans – who may be much maligned when it comes to the kitchen, but whose love for Italian cuisine is beyond question and who do far more to promote it than we Italians.

Where does deep-frying come into it? We Italians are fond of saying that "even a slipper is good when fried", but how many of us know that the famous fried pizza started to take off only after World War II? How many of us know that Roman supplì don’t go that far back either, nor do crocchè, nor do zeppole? And how many of us know that frying, as we know it today, is very much a modern technology, simply by virtue of its practical requirements? If we stretch the definition a little bit, then it’s the usual three suspects who are responsible for the invention of frying, way back in the mists of time. First we have the Egyptians, who (sort of) fried their sweet treats in lard and smothered them with honey. The Hebrews, when in Egyptian captivity, also learned how to combine fat and flour to good effect; but it was the Chinese, familiar with cast iron, who were best placed to achieve the fierce heat needed for frying.

The Greeks and Romans fried after a fashion in their terracotta pans, but, as we know, metal is a far better material for riding the extreme temperatures. Indeed there is no consensus as to how to translate the Latin verb frigere: some scholars maintain that it refers to cooking in general. As always, there’s much to be learned from the fifth-centuryApicius compendium, which talks about “frying” in mixtures of honey, olive oil and wine; only in the medieval period did frying become standardized in animal fats, like lard.

But the boxes of fried fish that crown a perfect Sunday at the beach are even more recent, going back only a couple of centuries, if that. It was in the middle of the nineteenth century that plates of hot fried fish started to make their way onto well-to-do tables: before that they had been served "alla francese", i.e. cold. These early attempts at fried fish provided a means of preserving fish in marinade: just look up how Comacchio eel, a taste that isn’t to everyone’s palate, are handled before being tinned. The usual "fritturina" that we have to endure, much to our disgrace, is often just a mere jumble of defrosted squid rings and unshucked prawns. It couldn’t be further from the pure deliciousness of a piping hot "frittura di paranza", so named after the boat that brings in the catch: a poetic rattlebag of small fish and shellfish soon to be floured and fried in boiling oil and, crucially, laced with no lemon, lest the taste be compromised. Some heated arguments, in fact, swirl around the question of citrus, but if you feel like a slice of orange on the side – well, who’s going to stop you?

Whether it comes on the plate or in a paper funnel, on a dish or in a box, with or without lemon, battered or unbattered, fried in olive or vegetable oil...well, it’s still a platter of fried fish, fragrant and crunchy, golden not browned, sprinkled with a bit of salt. It’s still one of those things that makes life worth living, and for which your waistline is worth expanding.