Pesce spada al cartoccio

Some Due Spaghetti followers try each of our recipes diligently.  They email questions about ingredients, quantities, and procedures.  They tell us about memories they have of eating those same foods, and sometimes they share their family’s version of them with us.  Other readers just enjoy reading our posts, admiring the photos, learning about Italian food and culture and living vicariously through the blog, which is perfectly fine, too.

If you fall into the latter category, you might, just might, want to give this recipe a try.  It is truly exceptional.  Even if this is the one Due Spaghetti recipe that you ever make, it will be worth it.  It is elegant, pretty, creative, and absolutely delicious.  It can be prepared in advance and kept warm in the oven, making it ideal for a dinner party.  It’s both filling and nutritious.  It’s sure to be a hit with your guests.  What more can we say?  We’ll likely never post a better recipe.

We wish we could take credit for this dish, but we can’t.  We don’t have a story to to tell  about how Stefano grew up eating it, his grandma having taught his mom, who in turn taught us.  Until today, we had actually never even had it before, at least not exactly like this.  We simply came across the recipe in Il cucchiaio d’argento, or The Silver Spoon, Italy’s most authoritative cookbook.  There is a gorgeous full-page photo of it on p. 744 that caught our attention, and we flagged the recipe to try someday.

You see, we love seafood.  Touched by four seas (the Mediterranean, Tyrrhenian, Adriatic, Ionian), it’s not surprising that fish are an important part of Italian cuisine.  Pesce spada, or swordfish, is one of the most prestigious.  There are six different swordfish recipes in Il cucchiaio d’argento, but the recipe pesce spada al cartoccio, featuring swordfish steaks accompanied by fresh clams, mussels, shrimp and the colorful southern Italian mix of tomatoes, yellow bell peppers, red chili peppers, basil and flat leaf Italian parsley, steals the show.

This foto of three fishermen, Daniele, Gaetano and Andrea, can be found on the Italian fishing website, along with the story of how they caught their pesce spada after an entire night of waiting.

The al cartoccio method of cooking fish is healthy and renders the fish incredibly flavorful.  Cartoccio means parcel or pouch in English.  There is not an English phrase to describe this cooking method; we’ve borrowed from the French en papillote.  It means  to wrap the fish in parchment paper or aluminum foil, or sometimes both, and bake it until cooked.  It requires little to no oil, and renders the fish moist, tender and bursting with flavor.

We used a little less oil than the original recipe called for, a little more garlic, and we added a little dry, white wine.  Otherwise, we followed the Cucchiaio d’argento recipe exactly.  Buy the freshest seafood you can find, and the most colorful herbs and vegetables.   It will turn out perfect.

Ingredients for 4
4 swordfish steaks
250 grams (9 ounces) mussels
250 grams (9 ounces) clams
150 grams (5 ounces) raw shrimp, peeled and de-veined
2 medium tomatoes
1 yellow bell pepper
1 red chili pepper (alternatively, crushed red pepper)
1 bunch flat leaf Italian parsley
1 bunch basil
2 cloves garlic
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 dash dry white wine
Salt to taste


Preheat the oven to 400° F (200° C).  Typically, shellfish today comes already scrubbed clean.  However, if yours aren’t, scrub the clams and scrub and de-beard the mussels.  If any clams or mussels are open, shut them.  Discard any that do not shut, or that reopen after you’ve shut them.  Mince the garlic.  Chop the tomatoes coarsely.  Cut the pepper lengthwise into strips 2 or 3 cm. wide.  Chop the chili pepper finely.  Preserve as many of the seeds as you wish – the more seeds you use, the hotter it will be.

Cook the shellfish
Place the garlic and 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a wide saucepan with a lid.  Sauté the garlic in the oil until it turns a golden color.  Pour in a dash of dry white wine, add the clams and the mussels, and cover.  Let the shellfish cook covered over medium until the clams and mussels open up, approximately 4 minutes.  Uncover, turn heat down and let simmer one more minute, and then remove from heat.  Discard any clams or mussels that did not open.  Separate the shellfish from the liquid, preserving both.  Set aside.

Cook the shrimp
Add one tablespoon of olive oil to a new pan.  You will eventually be adding the shellfish, their liquid and the vegetables, so choose a pan that can accommodate these.  Add the shrimp, and cook over medium heat until they turn pink, rotating them so that both side cook.  This will take just a few minutes.  Watch them carefully, turn them as soon as one side is pink, and avoid over-cooking so that they do not become tough.  Add the mussels, clams, yellow pepper, chili pepper, basil and parsley, and pour in the liquid from the shellfish.  Simmer covered for 5 minutes and uncovered for an additional 3 minutes, adding salt to taste.

Sear the swordfish
Add the final tablespoon of olive oil to a skillet and bring it to temperature over medium heat.  Add your swordfish steaks to the skillet, and sprinkle salt on top of them.  Cook for about 3-5 minutes, and then turn, salt the cooked side, and let the bottom side cook for another 3-5 minutes.  The outside will be cooked to a golden sear, but the inside will still be rare.

The final step – preparing the cartoccio
Tear four long, rectangular strips of aluminum paper, each long enough to contain a swordfish steak and the fish topping.  Position the foil lengthwise on a counter top.  Place a swordfish steak in the center of the foil, and top with 1/4 of the seafood.  Bring the long sides of the foil together at the top, and fold one side over the other, creating a seal.  Then, take one end of the foil, carefully fold it over and roll it towards the center of the parcel.  Do the same on the other end, creating a neat foil package.  Place each package onto a baking sheet.  Bake for approximately 10 minutes.

Serving the pesce spada al cartoccio
If helpful, the pesce spada al cartoccio can be left unopened in a warm oven for up to 30 minutes, or perhaps even longer, before serving. When you are ready to eat, place each parcel onto a serving plate, and carefully open the foil up, revealing the delicious seafood inside. Eat the fish right out of the foil, with plenty of crusty bread to soak up the delicious juices. Don’t forget to place an extra dish or two on the table so that your guests can discard their clam and mussel shells.

Download a pdf of the recipe Pesce spada al cartoccio

This entry was posted in Meat, Fish and Legumes, Recipes and Wine Pairings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Pesce spada al cartoccio

  1. Frank says:

    I really like this technique for cooking fish. Keeps things nice and moist, which is particularly important for a lean fish like swordfish. Sounds like a winner!

  2. Simona says:

    Pesce spada is my favorite fish, so you can imagine where I stand with respect to this recipe. As a kid I had an adversarial relation with fish. Everything changed the day I tasted swordfish. It hadn’t been prepared in as elegant a way as you did, but it had a bit of tomato sauce and it tasted like the deep sea. I can imagine nobody was talking while enjoying this feast.

  3. Pingback: Supplì al telefono | Due Spaghetti

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