The Best Cioppino Starts with This Secret (Hint: It’s in the Broth)
The seafood-filled stew has remained a San Francisco classic for over 100 years. Here’s everything you need to know about it.
When it comes to the recipes that define dining in the West, cioppino is top of mind. The somewhat rustic seafood stew—made by cooking a variety of seafood like shrimp, clams, mussels, and crab in a tomato and white wine based broth—is a dish that appears on dinner tables and restaurant menus up and down the coast, many still made in the style of 1800s fishermen.
For those not familiar with cioppino, it originated in a San Francisco neighborhood once inhabited almost entirely by fishermen, known as Fisherman’s Wharf, a now popular tourist district. “The fishermen had a community pot where they would put clams, mussels, and fish they had caught or was leftover at the end of the day,” according to Phil DiGirolamo, owner of Phil’s Fish Market in Moss Landing, California.
Chris Tompkins, owner of Broad Street Oyster Co., says the seafood-filled pot was then topped with tomatoes and whatever was left at the bottom of a bottle of white wine, then cooked until the fish flaked apart into the broth. Crab legs and claws were added at the final stage of cooking and stuck out of bowls as an indulgent garnish.
Folks remade the dish time and time again at home during the winter months before it eventually made its way onto restaurant menus across the city. Sourdough bread, another San Francisco staple, made the perfect accompaniment to sop up the remnants at the bottom of a bowl and was commonly served alongside the dish after a long day spent at sea.
While the type of seafood combined with the staple of crab claws and clusters may vary—some use cod, others use rockfish or even salmon—cioppino’s rich tomato broth is a necessary constant, and a big piece of crusty sourdough is essentially a requirement when serving.
As we explore what makes this such a quintessential Western dish, we asked California chefs and fishmongers about their takes and why it’s still so popular. They also shared tips on how to make cioppino—the classic way and with modern twists—in the comfort of your own home.
Then and Now: The Evolution of Cioppino
Since its inception on the docks of the Bay, cioppino has been embraced at restaurants across the West. Hog Island Oyster Co., nestled in the back of the Ferry Building in San Francisco, was recognized by Michelin with a Bib Gourmand for its array of seafood dishes; its cioppino was highlighted as a “rustic seafood stew loaded with prawns, clams, and mussels,” that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Up the coast a few miles at Nick’s Cove, owners Dena and Hans Grunt are making cioppino in the classic coastal preparation as well. “The richly flavored broth provides a silky base for a profusion of shrimp, crab, mussels, clams, and fish,” Dena Grunt told us when sharing their recipe. “It takes a bit of patience and one eye on the clock to make a great cioppino, but the result is well worth the effort.”
Down south in Malibu, Tompkins, of Broad Street Oyster Co., takes the liberty of adding unconventional ingredients to his cioppino, like salmon. He admits that it “isn’t the most classic take, but people love it.” The dish is really all about his tomato-based broth, which Tompkins says is influenced by the traditional preparation he first tried at Hog Island after moving to California five years ago. “We have a bit of influence from Hog Island’s cioppino with the addition of Calabrian chilli, which they use, so that’s a tip of the hat to them,” Tompkins says.
Broad Street Oyster Co. also takes a unique approach to serving cioppino by omitting crab. “We use wild-caught Mexican shrimp, local California halibut when it’s in season, and always clams and mussels,” Tompkins says of the dish. “It does have that tomato broth that everyone is so used to and we spread anchovy butter on our sourdough which is so good dipped in the cioppino broth.”
It’s not uncommon to omit crab when making cioppino, especially with the fragility of crab season across the state. “Back in the ’40s, crab in San Francisco was 25 cents a pound, it was abundant, unlike today,” DiGirolamo shares. If you can’t get crab, whether it’s out of season or too tough to get your hands on, cioppino can still be made!
“You win every time with whatever seafood you put in it,” Tompkins adds.
Though keep in mind, cioppino is a dish that was originally made with a variety of leftover seafood. The rich broth and acidity from the wine elevate cheaper cuts, so get creative without going overboard (it’s maybe not the dish to highlight fresh uni or lobster).
DiGirolamo agrees that broth is the most important part of making a good cioppino and uses three types of tomatoes in his own recipe. Crushed whole tomatoes and tomato paste are used to ensure the flavor is prevalent through all of the seafood. He also suggests using unpeeled shrimp to bring the flavor of the shells into the stock. Whether or not you add crab, salmon, or a base of shrimp and mussels, the broth will meld all the flavors.
What makes cioppino a staple dish of the state goes beyond its simplicity and depth of flavor. It’s more so the fact that from generation to generation, menu to menu, it holds the same basic ingredients and principle: to show that fresh ingredients, no matter the medley, can bear delicious meals.
Our Favorite Cioppino Recipes (and Toasts for Dipping)
If you want cioppino at home without the hassle of having to cook anything at all, DiGirolamo has spent 25 years mastering his cioppino recipe at Phil’s Fish Market and has now made it available for nationwide delivery through Goldbelly. All you have to do is heat it up.
Whether you’re waiting on a cioppino delivery or are planning your trip to the fish market, browse our favorite cioppino recipes and crostinis to serve alongside to get your mouth watering even more.