Every culture does fried food, but Italian cooks do it especially well. In Italy, whether it's artichokes, lamb chops or shrimp, the result is bound to be crisp and golden. Eaten with a just a sprinkle of salt and a squeeze of lemon, a well-fried morsel is supremely satisfying. But you don't have to go to a restaurant to get it.
Many Italian home cooks are experts at frying. Some, like Maria, my Tuscan friend Tony's aunt, would never consider going out for carciofi fritti. She is of a generation that considers restaurant cooking suspect on every level. When you arrive at her house in Lucca, the first thing you get is delicate fried zucchini blossoms to accompany your aperitivo.
She has devised a great system for frying at home. Maria sets up four electric skillets on a long table and fills each with a quantity of oil, then deftly dips a variety of vegetables in batter and nonchalantly produces the most ethereal crunchy treats. Of course, she has been doing it all her life.
This concept of fritto misto (assorted fried things) is attractive. And I find it is especially nice served this way, in bite-size pieces, as a stand-up antipasto to precede a meal.
I like to frequent a little bar in Venice that does a great job of it. A Venetian fritto, though, is rarely vegetarian. Given the city's incredible fish market, that would be foolishness. Consequently, you can sample all manner of spanking fresh tiny fish, miniature soft-shell crabs, myriad shrimplike creatures and many more pristine briny offerings, perfectly fried. You stop by at sunset for a plateful, then stroll for a while before dinner.
I won't say this sort of frying is altogether easy or without challenges. Hot oil is likely to splatter. Your kitchen should be well ventilated. If you don't have an electric fryer with a thermostat, you must become proficient at regulating the cooking temperature manually. Above all, you must be hyper-organized and methodical.
There are a few choices to be made before diving in, so to speak. Some cooks don't use a batter, but simply coat fish and shellfish with seasoned flour. Some fry in vegetable oil, while some prefer olive oil. I compromise with a mixture of the two.
Fritto misto is an art. You may not have complete success the first time, but as you master the technique, you'll be able to do it fearlessly. Is it worth the effort? Yes, emphatically yes.
Fritto Misto di Mare
Time: 1 hour
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
FOR THE BATTER:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup white wine
1/4 cup seltzer or club soda
FOR THE DREDGING:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
FOR THE FRITTO MISTO:
4 cups vegetable oil, or a mixture of olive oil and vegetable oil
1/2 pound medium shrimp, peeled
1 pound cleaned squid, cut in 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 pound bay scallops
1 pound mussels, steamed and shucked
1 pound white bait or smelt
1 lemon, sliced very thin
1 bunch scallions, trimmed to thin, 4-inch lengths
Pinch of crushed red pepper for garnish, optional
Parsley sprigs or chopped parsley for garnish, optional
1. Make the batter: Put flour and salt in a small bowl and gradually whisk in wine to obtain a smooth, lump-free mixture. Rest 30 minutes. Add seltzer just before frying.
2. For dredging, mix flour, salt and pepper in a shallow bowl and place near the stove. Put batter next to it and an empty plate next to that. Put fish and other ingredients for frying nearby.
3. Put oil in a large wok or a wide, deep pot and fasten a candy thermometer to the side. Heat oil to 375 degrees.
4. Working in small batches, dip a few pieces of shrimp, squid, scallop, mussels, white bait, sliced lemon and scallion first into the seasoned flour to coat lightly, then into the batter. Put battered pieces on the empty plate.
5. Slip a few pieces into the hot oil and fry 3 to 4 minutes, until golden. Remove with tongs or wire spider and drain on a paper-towel-lined baking sheet. Hold fried food in a warm oven while continuing to fry. Make sure to regulate heat below wok to keep oil at correct temperature. (Adding too many pieces to the oil will cause it to cool.) Rid oil of debris between batches with a fine meshed skimmer.
6. As soon as you have enough to serve, pile it onto a warmed platter. Sprinkle with sea salt (and crushed red pepper if desired). Garnish with parsley and lemon wedges. Continue to fry in small batches.
And to Drink ...
Picking a wine for fritto misto is a lot easier than cooking it. Choose almost any fresh, dry, acidic white, and the wine will be even better with bubbles. Champagne is ideal, especially blanc de blancs, but it's not the only one that will do. Spumantes come from every corner of Italy, whether good prosecco, Franciacorta or any other. Cava would be great, too. For still wines, start with any good dry Italian white, like tocai friulano, fiano, verdicchio or, yes, even pinot grigio. French whites like Muscadet and Chablis would be delicious, as would assyrtiko from the Greek island of Santorini. And I probably don't need to say it, but best of all would be a fresh Manzanilla sherry.
- ERIC ASIMOV
© 2015 New York Times News Service