The Butcher of Branzino

16 Feb

My brother is dangerous with the focus feature. More dangerous than raw fish.

Coming home for February 14th was easier said than done. After mounds of snow blocked my exit from Laguardia and the landing at Charlotte Douglass, a chain of delays and cancellations, and a piece of red foamboard (sorry, did I say foam board? I meant airport pizza), touching down in my hometown was a relief, with a few hours left of my mom’s birthday. John Hughes could have made a movie about it all.

My dad and I had planned an ambitious fish dinner. Mom’s allergic to a litany of foods, and we managed to find a line up of dishes she’d like that didn’t contain black pepper, garlic, or grapefruit, among other things. Paul Bartolotta’s whole salt-crusted branzino was a whole lot of fun to put together last night. While it wasn’t officially Mom’s birthday, I’d like to believe that birthdays should be weeklong affairs like Mardi Gras. Or at least long weekends, full of family and a whole lotta food.

Branzino’s one of the many new dishes I’ve heard about from reading Bill Buford’s Heat. Eaters, this is one of the best books about food and working in a kitchen that I’ve ever read, as well as an inspiring read on Italian cooking. The words he uses are salivating, and I had to start messing around with fennel. His first time cooking branzino sounds physically and mentally straining. I love it.



“By seven o’clock, the hair on my arms had disappeared, except for one straggly patch by my elbow, which had melted into black goo. I broke many fish…For some reason, I couldn’t get the hang of diving into an open flame and grabbing a fish by its head. I panicked. I did it too slowly. Then I did it too fast. There were bits of fish flesh everywhere.”

Sounded like a challenge; fortunately, nobody lost any hair.

160214_1After cleaning out the branzino (which is actually a Greek fish), I coated them in salt, citrus zest, and a helluva ton of anise products. Ground up anise stars get tossed in with almost half a cup of anise seeds, pumping the air with a licorice-like smell and giving this wet sand consistency a wet sand look.


After baking them in the oven for 25 minutes, the wet sand turns into a crust that we peeled off with the skin. The fish flesh wasn’t everywhere: it was fork-tender, flaky, and well worth the extra work. From Laguardia to staring down a dead fish, it was great to be home.

160214_2All photos by Phillip Werner


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