June 9, 2006
The Branzino Beat

When three isolated yet vaguely related things happen within a short time, it means something. I don't know what, and I'm not even sure why I think that. Must have been something I read somewhere sometime, but I'm convinced a series of three is a sign. If nothing else, it's grounds for a trend story, or at least a blog item.

At any rate, I recently first ran into a reference to the fish branzino while reading Bill Buford's tense, passionate and highly amusing book "Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany." Still with me? It's a culinary coming-of-age story, with branzino showing up during a stint while Buford manned the grill station in Mario Batali's restaurant Babbo in New York. Branzino, he explains paranthetically, is a Mediterranean sea bass, then goes on to tell how tricky it is to grill. He broke many of them. "Twenty-one had been ordered, but thirty-nine had been cooked," he recalls.

A couple of nights later I ran into "oven roasted branzino" on the menu at Mulvaney's Building and Loan, the first time I can recall seeing the fish hereabouts, though I do vaguely remember that Angelo Auriana was serving it a year or so ago at the El Dorado Hills restaurant Masque. And I wouldn't be surprised if Biba Caggiano has served it at her restaurant Biba, given that she includes a couple of branzino recipes in her cookbook "Modern Italian Cooking."

Still, branzino is rare here, or so I thought until we ate at the Sacramento branch of Il Fornaio a few nights after eating at Mulvaney's, and there was branzino again.

At Mulvaney's, the fish, looking like a pretty big trout, was served whole, stuffed with slices of lemon and fennel. At Il Fornaio, it was served as fat filets, first sauteed, then finished in the pizza oven before arriving on a kind of big-grained couscous with braised fennel, topped with cooked tomatoes and green olives. In both instances the meat was white, moist and sweet, and at Mulvaney's the skin was crisped up appealingly.

Branzino, according to the "Dizionario Enogastronomico Italiano," is simply Italian for sea bass, though in Italy it also is known as "spigola." It's common to the Mediterranean, accounting for its popularity in Italy wherever seafood is a staple of the diet. The branzino showing up here likely has been farm raised in pens in the Aegean Sea, however, says Colin Lafrenz of Ports Seafood in San Francisco, which is supplying at least some of the branzino landing on Sacramento restaurant menus.

While branzino has been popular in New York restaurants, it only now is starting to spread along the West Coast because more of it is being farmed, says Lafrenz. Also, West Coast chefs are traveling more to the East and to Europe, and are becoming more aware of the fish, he adds.

It isn't inexpensive - $27 at Mulvaney's, $22 at Il Fornaio - but by its heft and sweetness it's fitting for all sorts of preparations and spirited accompaniments, making for a relatively light yet flavorful meal in the summertime.

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