Why It Works
- Frying shrimp in their shells protects the meat from overcooking, boosts flavor, and produces an extra-crunchy coating.
- A blend of flour, cornstarch, and baking powder is used for a light, crispy dredge that doesn't mask the flavor and texture of the seafood.
- Frying each type of seafood separately ensures that they all cook quickly and evenly.
Fritto misto di mare is classic coastal Italian fare, served at seaside restaurants all over the peninsula. It’s a dish that embodies the “don’t mess with a good thing” approach that Italian cuisine is famous for: locally caught seafood is lightly floured, fried, and served with just a squeeze of lemon. This version, known as a frittura di paranza in Campania and other parts of Southern Italy, features crispy shell-on shrimp, tender squid, and small whole fish. Paired with a chilled Falanghina, it's a dinner party showstopper.
What Seafood Is in Frittura Di Paranza?
Sourcing the right seafood is arguably the hardest part of this recipe. There are no set rules for what must be included, but the dish is meant to evoke the bounty hauled in by small Italian fishing boats known as paranze, which usually includes a mixture of crustaceans like shrimp, cephalopods like calamari and cuttlefish, and small fin fish like anchovies. Squid and shrimp are relatively easy to come by in the US, but the fresh Mediterranean sardines and anchovies that are famously fished off the Amalfi coast aren't. North American smelt, which are typically sold already cleaned, work well as a stand-in, even though they have a much milder flavor. Of course, you can also omit fish entirely and just make a shrimp and squid frittura.
Shell-on shrimp are ideal for fritto misto. The shells protect the shrimp meat from overcooking, while also imparting flavor thanks to glutamates and nucleotides in the shells that are absorbed by the meat during frying. On top of that, the shells crisp up when fried, providing a crunchy and completely edible coating without the need for a heavy dredge. Medium to large shrimp work best for this recipe because they fry up quickly, and their relatively thin shells provide just the right amount of crunch. We always recommend purchasing individually quick frozen shrimp as opposed to shrimp that have already been thawed (most shrimp available for purchase are frozen as soon as they are harvested to preserve texture and flavor). This is particularly important for head-on shrimp, as the heads contain enzymes that can make the shrimp’s meat mushy, and freezing halts this process.
Dredging and Frying the Seafood
The dredge for a frittura di paranza is simple. Traditionally, the seafood is tossed in semola rimacinata (finely ground semolina flour) or all-purpose flour until just coated and then fried. It's much lighter than the dredge used for Italian-American-style fried calamari, which needs to be able to stand up to being dunked and dipped in tomato sauce. To keep the coating to a dusting, I skip the milk-soaking step that Tim uses in his calamari recipe, but I kept the additions of cornstarch and baking powder, which help keep the seafood crisp once it comes out of the hot oil.
Frying the seafood in batches at a relatively high temperature ensures that it all cook quickly and evenly. During testing I found that the shell-on shrimp maintained crispness longest after frying, followed by squid. The higher moisture content of smelt causes them to lose their crunchy exterior quickest, so I fry them last while holding the fried shrimp and calamari in a warm oven. Once everything's fried, pile the seafood on a platter with lemon wedges and serve it up with some wine alongside.