Cioppino is a fish stew that originated in San Francisco.
Now don’t write in and say that you’ve seen this before and it’s actually French bouillabaisse. When I wrote about the taquito having been invented in San Diego, I had a reader insist they weren’t ‘original’, but were actually flautas from Mexico. Well, yes flautas inspired the taquito, which are just an itsy bit different… different enough for the owners of El Indio to call them their original invention. So too, Cioppino takes it’s inspiration from the fish stews in Italy (the word itself is from the Genoese dialect meaning “little soup”), but the dish was still very much invented in San Francisco.
In the late 1800′s Portuguese and Italian fishermen settled in San Francisco and, according to the restaurant Cioppino’s, when the immigrants came off their boats at the end of the day, they cried out “chip in!” (Note that words in Italian always end in vowels, so they would have said something like “choppa-peenno”.) Fishermen would then chop up and dump their leftover catch of the day in a collective pot of soup. That’s, at least, the myth and sometimes myths are far more accurate than historical fact, aren’t they? (Or maybe we’ll debate that another day.)
Saveur Magazine calls Cioppino “one of San Francisco’s greatest contributions to culinary history.” Another website lists twenty-one different recipes, but essentially the dish is made with a tomato and wine base, then loaded with torn up fish as well as shellfish, including clams, mussels, shrimp and more. For Northern California, the most important ingredient is Dungeness crab and the peak season for this delight is winter. Named for the fishing town of Dungeness in Washington, both Dungeness and San Francisco were the first to harvest these large beasts in 1848 with their mammoth legs and bodies that can grow up to 7 inches.
Although Fisherman’s Wharf is the best place to experience Cioppino, the dish is served on most seafood menus throughout Northern California. At Fisherman’s Wharf, in particular, you can also find fresh oysters (harvested in California), sourdough bread bowls (usually filled with clam chowder) and buy lots of “kitsch of the sea” from novelty shops. The food, however, is the most important part of the Bay Area and you can check out this article to see how many culinary inventions began in this region.