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Making Cioppino with Mama Rita and Guido Ferro

Mama Rita Ferro’s kitchen is a great place to be. It’s always filled with amazing Italian food, family, friends, and her joyful spirit that guarantees lots of good times. Recently, I spent the afternoon there making cioppino with her and son Guido for their upcoming Beyond Wonderful International Home Chef feature.

Italian fishermen living in San Francisco made cioppino as a way of using leftover fish from the sales of their daily catches. Gathering around a community pot, they tossed the fish into a tomato-based sauce and cooked it long enough to release its juices and flavors. Mama Rita has spent years perfecting her sauce, and always makes it a day ahead so that the flavors have time to meld and ripen in anticipation of the fresh fish.

She sent Guido and me off to the Thien Loi Hoa supermarket in Oakland where they sell a variety of live and fresh fish—perfect for our cioppino. Serving a sizable Asian community, this market is filled with large tanks of swimming fish and crabs, aerated trays of clams, mussels and snails, and large displays of whole fish. Guido surveyed everything and couldn’t decide which “fat fish” he wanted—halibut or red snapper. I got distracted by a tray of six-inch conches in their shells.

“Hey, Barbara let’s get the snapper—that color is spectacular.” Our fish monger cleaned and filleted the fish, then also packed up the head and tail for us to use in stock.

Next, live Dungeness crabs. Our monger took us to the tank and picked two beauties, then wrapped them in butcher paper. They didn’t move much. Guido asked me if I’d ever cooked live crabs. “You know they scream,” he said with a grin, “Eeee! Eeee!” Undeterred by his pranks, I joined Guido in finishing off the shopping list: clams, mussels, shrimp and scallops.

Back at Mama Rita’s kitchen, the real fun began. I’d expected to toss our whole “catch” into the bubbling sauce at once, but Guido and Mama Rita let me in on a secret: cook the fragile snapper separately, then add it to the stew at the last minute. Otherwise the crab claws shred the snapper, creating mushy scraps rather than tender morsels. By the end of the 30-minute cooking time, everyone in the house had gathered in the kitchen, drawn by the intoxicating scent.

As always, we all had to wait patiently while Beyond Wonderful photographer, Windsor Andersen, worked her magic with the finished dish. Once she’d gotten the perfect shot, everyone filled their bowls and headed outside to the deck that overlooks a local canal. As we devoured our dinner, a boat sailed by and someone called up, “Hey, what are you cooking? It smells awesome. Are we invited for dinner?” We all waved and laughed, then got back to the serious business of sucking and picking the meat out of the shells and sopping up the sauce with an endless supply of hot garlic bread. With sauce running down my chin and all over my hands, I had to bless the Italian fishermen—and Mama Rita and Guido.

Take a look at Guido and Mama’s Rita’s Beyond Wonderful article, From Market to Meal: Classic Italian Cioppino, and get printable recipes.