Paolo Laboa of Prides Osteria in Beverly quickly became famous here for his world-winning pesto and silken pasta, but at home in Genoa, Laboa was equally revered for his Cappon Magro, an enormous butte of fish and marinated vegetables, crowned with battling lobsters, ornamented with buttery browned scallops and rosy pink shrimp.
Cappon Magro is one of those gothic masterpiece sorts of dishes that Italians love. It has all the drama, color, and power of a great tenor aria. Bellissimo. Grandissimo. Bravissimo.
The recipes online come with modern warnings: “If you’re wealthy enough to make this ...” “If you’re still standing when you’re finished making this ...” It is one of those macho dishes that Italian restaurants with grand egos place in their windows; blue blood Genovese families prepare it on Christmas Eve.
“It is very special to the Genovese,” Laboa says.
Genovese pirate food, he calls it. The name’s origins are mixed: The original Genovese fish used was Cappone, but some sources say the dish is “magro,” or lean, because it was served on holidays such as Christmas Eve when meat was not allowed.
But Cappon Magro’s origins are straight from the sea; on pirate ships, and then the renowned Genovese schooners, Cappon Magro developed as a means of preserving both fish and vegetables; it required no refrigeration, and was prepared with whatever fish was being caught. The bread was originally the Genovese “gallette,” or hardtack, but after Columbus, potatoes became part of the recipe. When the wine on the ship went bad, turning to vinegar, they used it in the Cappon Magro. In fact, the initial layer of Cappon Magro, the foundation upon which the rest is built, was hardtack soaked in seawater and vinegar.
Laboa uses bread soaked in vinegar and fish broth. The rest is layer upon layer of cooked seafood — monkfish, hake — each prepared separately. The cooked vegetables are always green beans, beets, cauliflower, and potatoes, marinated lightly with vinegar.