Crab Cioppino

When I went shopping yesterday, I forgot to get the frozen peas for dinner, but I did pick up a couple of pounds of frozen Dungeness Crab that just happened to be on sale. Folks can talk all day about their Alaskan crab or their Maryland crab, but the only real crab is the Dungeness.

As a kid growing up, crab was both a luxury and a freebie. A luxury because it was a rare treat in the house, but a freebie if we went down to the wharf and caught them, ourselves. More than a couple of times we  headed down to the wharf, armed with crab pots and gunny sacks. Six or 8 little kids – aged from about 9 to 13 – would jump on the streetcar to Powell Street and then onto the cable car to Fisherman’s Wharf and the Bay. We’d get some bait from a  fisherman – I don’t think we ever had to pay for any scraps – and the pots would go off the pier into the water. We’d spend a few hours roaming the docks and talking to the real fishermen – it was an active fishing port back then – and then load our bounty back onto the cable car and home. Crab races were always fun on the streetcar and at least once we left one under a back seat to get nice and ripe in those non-air-conditioned days. A couple of times we had a huge crab boil right on the sidewalk in front of Sonny & Junior’s house, bringing fresh-cooked crabs to the neighbors.  We led the good life.

Fast-forward a few years and I was cooking at the Riviera Dinner House. Once a year, Marco and Gracie – the owners – would have a Cioppino Feed. The only thing on the menu that night was Crab Cioppino. Marco and I made vats of it – served with crusty loaves of Larraburu sourdough bread. Larraburu was to sourdough what Dungeness is to crab. It was the epitome of crusty goodness. My father drove a Larraburu truck before getting into the San Francisco Fire Department in 1954 – and taking a significant pay cut to be a fireman. But even without the family connection, Larraburu was the best bread in The City. I can’t even imagine a restaurant today doing such a thing – and completely filling for two seatings plus seating at the bar – but they pulled it off for years. It was that good.

Crab Cioppino is an Italian-American creation created in San Francisco and based on a Genovese seafood stew. Once upon a time, most of the fisherman down at the wharf traced their ancestry back to Genoa and it was a communal meal made from a hodgepodge of fish and seafood.

It’s funny how the mind works. I saw those crabs and I was transported back in time remembering those crabbing trips to the wharf while my mind simultaneously reeled and raced for that recipe from The Riviera.

I think I got pretty close – for not using fresh crab and clams – and I can vividly remember the crab races down the aisle of the L Taraval.

Crab Cioppino

  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 4 stalks celery, chopped
  • 2 bell peppers, chopped
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped
  • 6 cloves garlic minced
  • 2 cups red wine
  • 32 oz clam broth
  • 2 28oz cans whole peeled Italian tomatoes, roughly chopped
  • 2 or more pounds Dungeness Crab
  • 3-4 pounds assorted seafood – clams, shrimp, langostino, calamari, scallops, firm white fish
  • 1 tbsp red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 cup chopped Italian parsley
  • salt & pepper, to taste

Break out a big pot.

Saute onions in olive oil until they begin to wilt. Add celery, peppers, and garlic, and cook until everything is tender and fragrant. Add a pinch of S&P and a hefty pinch of red pepper flakes.

Add 2 cups decent red wine and cook until it comes to a boil and slightly reduces. Add clam broth and bring to a boil.

Add the tomatoes and just cut slightly – you want chunks of tomato in the final dish. Add more red pepper flakes. Bring everything to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer about an hour. Stir in the parsley.

30 minutes before serving, add the crab. 15 minutes before serving, add the remaining seafood.

Simmer until everything is cooked through. Serve in wide bowls with the crustiest french bread you can find.

I’ve been thinking about Cioppino for quite a few months, now – ever since I thought there was a slight chance we would be hosting Christmas Eve dinner. I thought it the perfect dish for the Feast of the Seven Fish! We didn’t host, but if we ever do, I know what I’m making!

And today about 2:45 – before I had even finished the base sauce – I realized I had enough food for the neighborhood, so I called Victor’s brother and sister-in-law to come over and join us. We all ate heartily – and there’s still a batch that went into the freezer for Nonna when we’re in Sicily in a few weeks. It definitely is the perfect food to feed a crowd.

Sicily… Okay. About as far from Genoa as one can get and still be in Italy, but also with a heavy seafood tradition. I can’t wait to see what ideas we bring back with us. We may end up with the Feast of the Twenty-Seven Fish.

It could happen.