Michele Savoia at Dish Osteria in Pittsburgh uses a
section of tuna bottarga in spaghetti. Bottarga brings
a concentrated, primal flavor of fish.
ó Bold indeed was the first person to eat an oyster.
who was the first person to remove the egg-filled ovaries
from a mullet fish, salt them, press them, dry them in the
sun, and then eat some of that?
I have learned, call these cured roe sacs bottarga, but itís
also called botargo and many other names. In Sardinia and
Sicily, where itís also made with the larger roe sacs of
tuna, itís prized as poor peopleís caviar.
dense orange to brown slabs, ranging from several inches to
more than a foot long, typically are grated onto pasta or
salads, or served in thin slices, a la Parmigiana-Reggiano.
Like the cheese, bottarga packs a wallop of unami but with
the concentrated, primal flavor of fish.
always say to people who have not tasted bottarga that it
tastes like the essence of the sea," says Chicago-area
food writer and cooking instructor Viktorija Todorovska. In
her new "The Sardinian Cookbook: The Cooking and
Culture of a Mediterranean Island" (Agate Surrey,
October 2013, $22.95), she presents several recipes made
with this ingredient that is so important in that place and
along surrounding coasts.
my hands on a copy of the cookbook earlier this month when I
could find only a few references to bottarga in my
cookbooks. Thatís not, I learned, because itís anything
comprehensive 2012 "The Country Cooking of
Greece," Diane Kochilas describes mullet-roe harvesting
on the Western coast of that country, where the resulting
golden ingots of avgotaraho are dipped in beeswax to
preserve them. "For Greeks," she writes, "avgotaraho
is the most precious delicacy there is, one known and
revered by anyone with well-honed taste buds, including more
than a few ancient Greek and Roman gourmands and even the
Pharaohs before them."
delicacy is said to date all the way back to the
Phoenicians, whose ships spread it around the Mediterranean.
They simply were practicing nose-to-tail eating, and this
was their way of preserving a plentiful protein. Today itís
made ó often just as it was centuries ago, including the
sun drying ó and eaten from Egypt and elsewhere in Africa
to Taiwan and Japan, where karasumi, as itís known there,
can command hundreds of dollars per pound. Four versions,
including one made by women in Mauritania and the Turkish
version, haviar, are in Slow Food Internationalís Ark of
Taste listing of the worldís extraordinary
I could say I discovered this unusual food on a sun-drenched
over-Christmas tuna-fishing trip in Italyís Aegadian
Islands, but actually I started learning about it at DeLallo
Italian Marketplace on Route 30 in Jeannette, Pa. It was one
of the ingredients in a recipe on a package of fregola ó a
couscous-like oven-toasted pellet pasta from Sardinia ó
that my wife and I picked up and wanted to try.
didnít carry bottarga, and no other store we know seemed
to, but we still wanted to make this recipe, so we found
bottarga online and wound up ordering some from a Las
Vegas/South Pasadena, Fla., importer (lizshamirianbottarga.com).
The company offers it in various forms, including
pre-grated, coated in beeswax, and moist for serving in
slices. None is cheap. To try it, we ordered a small 3
1/2-ounce lobe of Sardinian for $34.84 with postage. It
arrived, in a resealable plastic bag, looking like the
pressed and dried organ it is, feeling and smelling a little
like fish jerky.
made and enjoyed the Fregola with Tuna and Bottarga recipe
on Christmas Eve ó a simple, one-pot feast of two fishes,
made nicely more flavorful with a mere tablespoon of grated
bottarga. I wouldnít say itís addictive, but that did
make us want to do more with the stuff.
found just a few bottarga recipes in my cookbooks, including
in "Made in Sicily" by Giorgio Locatelli (Ecco,
2012), which has one for Pasta con la Bottarga. But it calls
for a whopping 4 ounces, turned into a gravyish sauce, which
not only would cost a fortune but also probably would be too
strong a taste, at least for a newbie like me. I wonder now
if thatís some kind of error.
Todorovska agrees. "A little goes a long way," she
told me via email after I got her book and contacted her.
"I recommend that people use it as seasoning rather
than as dressing or sauce. In Sardinia, it is often
sprinkled on all kinds of salads."
in her new book include Artichokes with Bottarga,
Corkscrew-shaped Pasta with Zucchini Cream and Bottarga,
Risotto with Bottarga, and Tomato Bruschetta with Bottarga.
writes, "a grating of bottarga on pasta is all you
liken it to truffles. Tastewise, itís a bit like anchovies
or fish sauce.
tried and loved her recipe for Spaghetti with Bottarga,
which she calls "one of the most famous dishes on the
she believes bottarga is getting more popular in North
America, where she sees more restaurants using it.
fact, the ingredient recently has been championed by food
writers (the Los Angeles Timesí S. Irene Virbila, an
avowed bottarga smuggler, in September declared it to be
"having a moment") and food celebrities such as
Mario Batali, Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern. More on
the last, later.
in Pittsburgh, the only place Iíd heard of that sometimes
has bottarga on the menu is Dish Osteria on 17th Street,
South Side. In her 2008 review of the place, then-dining
critic China Millman raved: "The Spaghetti alla
Bottarga ($19) made superb use of this too rare
ingredient," which she described as "exotic oily
slabs (that) almost resemble some kind of cured meat, and
taste of the ocean."
and executive chef Michele Savoia still regularly puts that
dish on the menu, which is what he did for a stretch
starting last Thursday, Jan. 16.
morning, foodie photographer Larry Roberts and I squeezed
into his tiny kitchen for a chat and a demonstration.
Savoia grew up with his grandmother in Sicily, but he didnít
discover the pleasures of bottarga until he was a young man.
He says itís one of his favorite ingredients, not just for
its depth of flavor, but also for the depth of its history.
is one of those ingredients that is so ancient," he
says. He tells a bit of "the long story behind it"
to customers. As for the flavor, he says, "Itís very
hard to describe." But I like one way he says it:
"Itís like an adventure."
buys the darker, stronger-tasting tuna version, bottarga di
tonna, from Sicily via Buon Italia in New York City, where
it retails for $155 a pound (the mullet, or bottarga di
muggine, is $95.75 a pound at buonitalia.com).
slices it thinly and cooks a little pile of pieces in olive
oil with garlic, fresh parsley and lightly poached sun-dried
Pachino cherry tomatoes, plus thin slices of fresh chili
that sauce goes the al dente spaghetti, and he tosses it all
with a lot of toasted house-made and seasoned breadcrumbs,
then finishes it with a drizzle of olive oil, more parsley
and more slices of the bottarga.
a beautiful, simple dish, like pasta alla olio but with this
regulars who canít wait for him to put it on the menu.
(His 11-year-old son, Nico, is so "addicted" to
bottarga that "sometimes I have to lie to him"
about having any on hand.)
his version of the pasta dish made a new fan this past May:
While filming a Pittsburgh installment of his Travel Channel
show, "Bizarre Foods America," Mr. Zimmern and his
crew wound up at Dish, and Mr. Savoia was asked to whip them
up lunch. So he went to his cooler, grabbed the bottarga and
served the Spaghetti alla Bottarga family style, which Mr.
Zimmern much enjoyed (and made a Vine on).
dish the chef regularly makes with bottarga is not a
traditional one but one he came up with: crostini, or oiled
grilled bread, spread with sea urchin roe ó "I spread
it like Nutella," he says with a grin ó topped with
slices of chili, chopped chives, lemon zest and tiny slices
of the bottarga.
resulting starter is crunchy (bread), smooth and sweet
(urchin roe), salty (the bottarga), piqued with the heat of
the peppers and the tang of the lemon.
I was eating not only tuna eggs but also sea urchin eggs ó
with a little glass of Sardinian Nuragus di Cagliari white
wine, natch ó and my taste buds were falling in love.
looking forward to continuing to learn about and play with
bottarga and find places that use it. I just learned that
Penn Avenue Fish Co. in the Strip District was getting in
some mullet and tuna bottarga this week. Henry Dewey, who
once did a bottarga-themed Sardinian wine dinner, says he
can order it, but, "Not a whole lot of people know
found an interesting American company, Bemis & James,
that harvests and cures the roe sacs of striped mullet from
the Gulf of Mexico in Florida.
are abundant there, and hundreds of thousands of pounds of
the roe sacs are frozen and exported to other countries to
be turned into bottarga and karasumi.
what Mike Lassiter and his partner are doing is making the
bottarga themselves, with an artisinal process that results
in a product thatís been embraced by chefs, including Sean
Brock of Charleston, S.C.ís, celebrated Husk.
been selling through a distributor for about a year and just
got up their own Web shop at bemisandjames.com, where their
bottarga/karasumi sells for $34.95 for a small shelf-stable
package (2 to 3 ounces), $43.95 for a medium (3 to 4 ounces)
and $54.95 for a large (4 to 6 ounces).
the phone last week, during the peak of the mullet-roe
harvesting season in that part of Florida, Mr. Lassiter (@bottargaguy
on Twitter) explained to me how the mullet fishery has
become a sustainable one now that the state has banned nets
and gone back to smaller-scale fishing methods.
hoping heíll help grow the industry there by helping grow
a domestic market for bottarga (although he canít see it
rivaling the market in Japan, where he also wants to
loves mullet bottarga grated on vegetables, simple salads,
other seafood (Mr. Brock puts it on oysters), even on toast.
Of course, heís hard-core and has been known to eat a bowl
of fresh mullet roe like other people eat breakfast cereal.
Lassiter explains that itís the tiny size of the eggs that
lend mullet roe sacs to being preserved this way. But I was
fascinated to learn from Mr. Savoia that Wild Purveyors
experimented in making bottarga with the roe sacs of Laurel
Highlands trout, something that Wild Purveyorsí Cavan
Patterson says heís taking another crack at.
little bottarga journey leaves me amazed at the things we
humans will eat.
we shared the bowl of preserved-fish-egg pasta on the copper
bar at Dish, Mr. Savoia mused that there are two other edgy
Sicilian delicacies that heíd like to sometime serve
cured tuna heart, which heís eaten before.
other, he has not:
tuna sperm sac.
WITH TUNA AND BOTTARGA
pasta can be served warm after you make it or cold.
ounces canned tuna
ounces cherry tomatoes, diced
leaves fresh basil, chopped
teaspoon dried oregano
tablespoon salt-cured capers, rinsed to remove salt
shallot, finely chopped
tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (optional)
tablespoon grated bottarga
the tuna, tomatoes, basil, oregano, capers, shallot and oil
if using it into a large pot and leave to steep for
approximately 20 minutes.
cook the fregola in a large pot of boiling salted water (1
gallon). Drain the pasta when it is al dente and add to the
tuna-tomato mix. You can add some oil to better mix the
with bottarga before serving.
Casa del Grano (lacasadelgrano.com)
Osteriaís chef Michele Savoia cooks the tuna bottarga in
his more elaborate version of this dish. But Viktorija
Todorovska says bottarga "should not be cooked. Make
sure not to overcook the pasta. I prefer to use thick
spaghetti, as it stands up better to the strong flavor of
of that strong flavor, it can be hard to match wines with
it, but she mentioned a couple of Sardinian wines that work
ó Vernaccia and a blend of that and Vermentino. I was able
to find bottles of Vernaccia and Vermentino at state Wine
& Spirits specialty stores and enjoyed trying them with
this simple dish.
tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
cloves garlic, minced
teaspoon crushed red pepper (optional)
tablespoon sea salt, plus more to taste
ounces spaghetti, preferably thick
2 to 3
tablespoons bottarga for sprinkling
large (6- to 7-quart) saute pan, warm the oil and garlic
over medium-low heat. Add the crushed red pepper (if using).
Remove from the heat and set aside.
medium (8- to 12-quart) stockpot, bring the water and 1
tablespoon of salt to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until
it is almost al dente, 1 minute less than the package
the pasta, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water. Add the
pasta to the pan containing the oil and garlic. Toss, adding
some reserved cooking water if necessary.
the pasta to a serving bowl and serve hot, sprinkled with
the bottarga. Adjust the seasoning to taste.
Sardinian Cookbook" by Viktorija Todorovska (Agate
Surrey, Oct. 2013, $22.95)