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.
In between every layer and spread over the entire form, is Paolo’s salsa verde, a sauce of parsley, lemon, pinenuts, olives, hardboiled eggs, and soaked bread. The dish lasts for up to a week, and, as Laboa says, “today it’s very good; tomorrow better.”
“It takes a while to understand the balance of this dish; it’s a balance of strong flavors and sweet flavors” — the sweet fish and vegetables, the sharp vinegar and bright taste of the salsa verde — Laboa says.
Laboa creates this masterpiece for weekend diners; it takes two days to prepare. All the vegetables are cooked, peeled, finely chopped, and allowed to stand at room temperature, marinating in oil, for 24 hours. All the fish is boiled, and allowed to cool in its own broth. Each layer is finished with a drizzle of olive oil, salt and pepper, and salsa verde.
The shellfish-studded magnificence stands in the center of the dining room, a crowning monument to piracy and the Maritime Republica, the great sea power comprised of Genoa, Venice, Pisa and Amalfi that once controlled salt and spices from the East.
There are not many restaurants in the U.S. that still prepare this sort of dining room centerpiece, served to order. I watched Laboa assemble it one Saturday afternoon, a process that took long enough for him to tell good stories, one of which was about the Maritime Republica. At war with Tuscany, the Republica refused sell Tuscans salt, so until very recently traditional Tuscan bread still had no salt.
Besides having a long history representing Genovese maritime life, Cappon Magro is extremely healthy. Repeatedly, Laboa emphasized how the balance of bread, vinegar, vegetables and fish is “very good for the digestion — it makes your stomach feel good.”
Better emphasized is that balance of sweet and strong. One bite of Cappon Magro, and you taste all the care, the complexity, the history, the magnificence to this dish. To describe it as a marinated fish appetizer is like calling Luciano Pavoratti a singer.
Because the entire recipe far exceeds the word count here, I am including only Laboa’s salsa verde recipe, which is just plain wonderful on fish or grilled chicken. The Cappon Magro fundamentals are as I described above. If you would like more details, don’t hesitate to email me.
Paolo Laboa’s Salsa Verde
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 clove of garlic
1 tablespoon capers
1 salted anchovies (rinsed, and peeled from spine)
4 taggiasca olives (Ligurian olives - small, black)
1 tablespoon pinenuts
1 cup Italian parsley rinsed, dried, and de-stemmed
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 hard-boiled egg
1/2 slice white bread soaked in vinegar
Put in a blender: oil, garlic, capers, anchovies, olives, pine nuts.
Blend well, or until smooth.
Add parsley, salt, and egg. Blend again. It should be green and smooth at this point.
Add bread soaked in vinegar, and blend once more
Rockport resident Heather Atwood writes the Food for Thought column weekly. Questions and comments may be directed to email@example.com. Follow her blog at HeatherAtwood.com.