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What: A city surrounded by water, San Francisco has a plethora of fresh seafood at its disposal. Sure, you’ll find it finely cut into impeccable sushi and sashimi and expertly sautéed by a myriad of chefs here, but cioppino is the most quintessentially San Francisco seafood dish. A tomato-based seafood stew that originated here in the 1800s among the Italian fishing community, cioppino is traditionally filled with whatever was left over from the day’s catch, often including mussels, clams, shrimp, white fish, and even a whole Dungeness crab, all of it cooked with ample amounts of garlic and wine. The origin of the name is three-fold: Ciuppin means “to chop” in Ligurian Italian, and cioppino features all manner of leftover, “chopped” seafood. Ciuppin is the actual name of a Genoese seafood stew (though that version features fewer tomatoes). And, according to some sources, the name cioppino comes from the request, “Hey, you—chip in!” made to fellow fishermen in beginners’ English. In any case, cioppino quickly became a fixture at San Francisco’s Italian restaurants, and remains a staple at the city’s seafood-centric spots.
Where: When it comes to classic San Francisco seafood, it’s hard to beat Sotto Mare (552 Green St., betw. Grant & Columbus Aves., map) in North Beach, San Francisco’s traditionally Italian neighborhood. The restaurant serves up delicious, fresh seafood, simply prepared—petrale sole gently cooked in butter, pan-fried sand dabs, just-shucked West Coast oysters, and, of course, cioppino. The space is warm, bustling, and always crowded—the walls are covered with framed photos of owner Gigi Fiorucci with San Francisco luminaries, evoking Sotto’s storied San Francisco past.
When: Mon-Sat, 11am-9:30pm
Order: The “Best Damn Crab Cioppino” ($41). Sotto Mare stakes a bold claim with its menu description, but the textbook-perfect take on cioppino lives up to the hype. Served in a grand silver tureen, the restaurant claims it is “enough for two”, yet we’ve fed up to six people with this brimming bowl of seafood (particularly when paired with a couple of generous plates of fish). Massive hunks of cracked crab are best attacked with your hands; plump, briny mussels and clams, sweet shrimp, and falling-apart whitefish round out the mix. But what makes this cioppino so good is the broth. It’s rich with bright, sweet tomato flavor, given depth with a hearty pour of wine, and laced with enough garlic for a good bite. Make use of the bibs provided—it won’t be long before you’re hit with a delicious shellfish splatter.
Alternatively: We also love the cioppino at Anchor Oyster Bar (579 Castro St., betw. 18th & 19th Sts., map) in the Castro—the flavor profile is similar to Sotto’s, but with even more garlic. You’ll find winning versions at Tadich Grill (240 California St., betw. Battery & Front Sts., map) and Woodhouse Fish Co. (multiple locations, including 2073 Market St., at Church St., map), as well.
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