Santa Margherita Ligura, tucked between Portofino and Rapallo on the Gulf of Tigullio, epitomizes the nostalgic Italian Riveria. Frequented by prosperous Northern Italians, the picturesque resort town features an inviting pedestrian zone, tromp l’oeil frescos, and old world elegant hotels. During a morning passeggiata along the palm tree lined marina one can watch luxurious yachts set amongst traditional fishing boats. The bustling morning fish market sources fresh catch for local establishments. Never being a family intimidated by dining on a whole fish, as a toddler La Levitt relished the sight of a well prepared head always eager to feast on the eyes (yes on not with), we first sampled Branzino some years ago dining al fresco in Santa Margherita Liguria.
Branzino, branzini being the plural also known as spigola or ragno in Italy, is a European sea bass primarily a salt water species, known to venture into fresh waters. To the great surprise of many, most of the branzino available in the United States is Mediterranean farm raised, however wild branzino is certainly available from a number of sources. The size of a whole fish ranges from 1 to 1½ pounds, making it perfect for serving at home. The moist white flesh is semi firm with some small bones.
As with any fish purchase, select a reliable fishmonger who has a strong following. Fresh branzino should have a nice sheen and clear eyes. Ask your fishmonger to remove the innards and scale the fish, keeping the head and tail intact. The delicate taste of the fish pairs nicely with fresh herbs, olive oil, and garlic. Tossing the last of our sun gold cherry tomato harvest into the pan was all that was needed to create this simple masterpiece.
- 2 Branzini, 1 to 1½ pound each, cleaned, scaled, with head & tail left intact
- 1 pint of cherry tomatoes, washed and stem portion removed
- Small bunch of thyme, washed and patted dry
- 2 to 3 cloves of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
- 4 to 5 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Preheat the oven to 375º F, oil a roasting pan with 2 Tbs. of the olive oil. Rinse the prepared fish under cold running water and dry with paper towels.
- Season the cavity and both sides of the fish with salt and pepper. Arrange 3 or 4 slices of garlic and several sprigs of the thyme for each of the branzini in the roasting pan, place each fish over the garlic & thyme sprigs in the pan; repeat by placing the sliced garlic & thyme on the top side of the fish. Place 2 or 3 slices of garlic & 2 sprigs of thyme inside the cavity of the branzini.
- Scatter the cherry tomatoes around the branzini, season lightly with salt & pepper and thyme. Drizzle the remaining olive oil over the fish and tomatoes and place into the preheated oven.
- Check the fish after about 15 minutes, shaking the pan to prevent the fish from sticking. The tomatoes will begin to brown and release liquid which will combine with the moisture from the fish to create a natural sauce. Spoon some of the sauce over the fish, garnish with a few sprigs of thyme and serve immediately.