September 26, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Fish Out of Water

By |2018-03-21T18:25:26+01:00September 1st, 2007|Food & Wine Archive|
What’s the difference between a sardine and an anchovy?

You know, in the old days, before commercial fishing boats and dragnets and offshore fisheries and all of that, what you’re eating was a working fisherman’s only meal. Just fresh sardines, a pagnotta, a bottle of Vermentino and a barrel of water…”

The dish in question is an order of marinated sardines, eight matching filets deboned and arranged around the plate like an edible clock face. There’s a thin line of light green olive oil on the filets and a shower of fresh parsley and dried oregano over the whole plate. I was about to devour midnight through two o’clock when the comment caught my attention.

The speaker looks like he knows what he’s talking about. My wife renamed Vito, the septuagenarian head lifeguard who runs the Ligurian beach where we’re enjoying the last gasps of summer “Il vecchio e il mare.” The old man and the sea. His face is the color of cardboard, and roughly the same texture as the barnacles he spent the morning scraping off someone’s sea kayak. His bright blue eyes are burrowed between folds of flesh like pearls at the bottom of an oyster shell, and he has crooked brown mitts instead of hands. I remember someone telling me he took to lifeguarding as a pensioner, and it’s not hard to imagine those knotted hands hauling nets over the side of a gozzo — the classic Ligurian fishing boat — for most of his life.

Intrigued, I set aside knife and fork to invite further explanation. “They’re not cooked, you see,” he continues. “The fishermen went out for days at a time, and sardines are easy to catch and good bait too. Just about every fish in the sea will eat ‘em. To cook the fish, you just gut one, split it open and douse it with marinade. After about an hour, the acid in the lemon juice cooks the flesh. Add a few herbs and there you have it. That lunch right in front of you.”

Over the next 10 minutes, Vito gives me a crash course on sardine fishing in this corner of the Mediterranean, running through times and tides and winds with suggestive names like Tramontana and Maestrale. I’m no more fisherman than football player, but the anecdotes are engaging, and my plate of fresh marinated fish seems that much more savory for it. I ask a question that’s always intrigued me: “What’s the difference between a sardine and an anchovy?”

Vito chuckles. “No difference at all. It’s the same fish.”

Later, a little research would prove that’s technically untrue, though they’re close enough to seem like the big blue’s Castor and Pollux, and I’m sure if I walked down out of the restaurant and polled the beach population most people would agree with Vito.

The United Nations lists no fewer than 21 different fish that can be classified as “sardines.” Both fish are abundant throughout the earth’s oceans, and especially in the Mediterranean. (The sardine takes its name from Sardinia.) Both are small, slender, silvery fish that travel in enormous schools. Like Spam, both usually need to be taken out of a tin before you can consume them. Unlike Spam, both are rich in nutrition’s most recent white knight: Omega 3. A team of California researchers recently established that the two populations take turns in abundance, alternating roughly every 25 years, favoring anchovy populations when the ocean is cooler and sardines when things warm up.

But no matter the fish, if you haven’t had them fresh, “cooked” in a simple marinade, it’s time to give them a try. This is as true for Italian alici (fresh anchovies), as it is for sardines, and either one can be found in most seafood restaurants, usually as an antipasto. For fish that pack such a powerful punch once they’ve been salted, oiled or otherwise cured and canned, the simple filets have a surprisingly delicate taste. With a bottle of cool white wine, a round loaf of bread and the last rays of summer on the Mediterranean, it’s hard to imagine anything more appetizing.

After lunch, when Vito had returned to the water to give a group of kids gruff diving lessons from the red pontoons of his lifeguard boat, I learned from the owner of the restaurant that the old man had never worked as a fisherman, but as a mechanic for the oil refineries in Busalla, a fact that didn’t seem to devalue Vito’s oceanic advice one bit in the restaurateur’s eyes. “His old man was a fisherman, but Vito always hated the trade. Didn’t come back to the sea until he retired. He knows a thing or two, though. It’s in his blood.”

That sounded good enough to me.

About the Author:

Aaron Maines is a freelance writer, editor and translator based in Milan. He has written for a number of newspapers and magazines, including the International Herald Tribune, The New York Times and The Guardian. He wrote "Foodbox," the magazine's gourmet column, from September 2006 through December 2007.