Nobody sane ever asks me for cooking advice, and probably with good reason. In any event, I almost never offer any, and am about to do so now only because of something I learned from a linguist, also not your usual source of culinary wisdom. It shows what happens when you pay attention without knowing why.
I met the linguist, whose name is Roberto Dolci, and who teaches at Universita per Stranieri in Perugia, in the course of researching another article, about the Italian American habit of calling tomato sauce gravy. We were introduced by a folklorist I had just interviewed—I point this out only to show the discursive route to my discovery. Dolci began by admitting he had no idea why some Italian Americans might say gravy where everyone else says sauce—in this he was not alone—but he was happy to expound instead on the history of the words, going back to ancient Rome and what is perhaps the oldest Italian sauce, much older than tomato (which came to Europe from the New World only as part of the Columbian Exchange).
“If you look at the etymology of sauce,” Dolci said,
it comes from salsa, which comes from the Latin word salso, meaning salted—salato in Italian, salsus in Latin. Have you ever heard of the garum? It was one of the first sauces ever, common in Roman times, made of fish—they used to put it on everything. It was supposedly strong and smelly. It was the actual juice of the fish, I don’t know how they made it, but in Italy today we have something similar called colatura di alici. It’s very much like the garum, because it is made of anchovies that have been salted and then pressed to release the liquid.
That was all well and good, if useless for the piece I was writing, but then sometimes the most useless information will turn around and prove itself spectacularly otherwise.
A few weeks later, I pick up an issue of New York magazine devoted to food, and find, in an article about celebrity ingredients, a glowing mention of colatura di alici. To have gone my entire life never knowing of this stuff’s existence, and then to stumble upon it twice in quick succession—well, you can see how a person might take that as a sign.
Maybe a week after that, I’m in Eataly, the huge, high-priced, insanely well-curated Italian food mall, to meet some guys for lunch. But I arrive early, and am idly browsing around, and there, on a shelf in an out of the way corner, I find not one but several brands of colatura di alici. Here, at last, in the real world: it exists. So, of course I take the universe’s hint and buy one—the cheapest one—and at lunch, overcome by curiosity, pour a little of the amber-colored, slightly viscous liquid into a saucer and dip a piece of bread in it.
Tremendous, if kind of hard to describe. It tastes of fish, though not fishy. The essence of the anchovy more than the anchovy itself: the platonic anchovy. Multidimensional—the taste echoes around in your head, and if I knew what the word umami meant, I’d use it now. Brazenly, arrogantly salty—really, I think it could cause instant hypertension. But worth it.
Colatura di alici tastes nothing like those mushy, hairy little fishes that you find marooned on pizza. One taste of colatura di alici and you feel sorry for anchovies that end up anywhere else. At lunch that day I was with two friends who, like me, grew up at Italian-American tables in the 1950s and ’60s, guys I have known forever, and they loved it, too. It was addictive—maybe it’s the salt?—so I had to put the bottle away or else they would have finished it.
The best version of colatura di alici, linguist Dolci told me and further research confirmed, is said to come from the small fishing village of Cetara, on the Amalfi Coast, where, in summer, anchovies are caught and put into wooden barrels along with salt and then weighted down. The fishes give up their juice and in autumn, holes are poked into the barrels’ bottoms so the colatura can be drained. (It’s not dissimilar, apparently, from the fish sauce used in Southeast Asian cooking, which is made in a similar fashion.) Garum, the Roman precursor to the Italian version, dates back at least to a couple of centuries before the birth of Christ, not that this is a competition.
I don’t want to make it seem like I think I discovered some obscure condiment that only Italian fishermen (and linguists) knew about. In 2011, Lidia Bastianich told the Wall Street Journal that it was her ingredient of the summer. She said she uses it on everything—salad, sauces, roasted meat. Even before that, the chef and food blogger Erica De Mane celebrated it online, calling it “an elegant, stinky syrup.”
Still, it was new to me, so as soon as I got it home I put the pot on for one of the pasta dishes favored by we mediocre cooks. The actual Italian term is aglio e olio, but Italian Americans pronounce this dish as turn-of-the-century immigrants presumably did, ah-YOY. It’s a dressing for spaghetti or linguini made by chopping some garlic (aglio) and sauteeing it in olive oil (olio) until the garlic turns slightly golden but no darker, lest it become brown and bitter, and maybe throwing in some crushed red pepper. It’s fast, it’s easy, it’s good, it’s almost impossible to ruin. And it doesn’t require anything more.
But if you make that, and then, at the last minute, stir in a tablespoon or two of the anchovy juice, well … it becomes something altogether else.
Life-altering. The way to do it right, the label on the bottle tells me, is to make the garlic and oil dressing in a pan or pot big enough to hold all the pasta you’re making, and then spoon in a little of the starchy pasta water, and then, with the heat still on, drain the spaghetti and put it in the pot and stir it around to coat it with the oil and garlic, and then—then—stir in a tablespoon or two of the anchovy juice. (But with one big caveat: Do not salt the water in which you cook the pasta. This goes against all training, I realize, but even just a spoonful of the anchovy juice provides plenty of salt. Any more and the dish might be toxic.)
The bottle also says it also goes well on vegetables, so next I tried this: I roasted an entire cauliflower, drizzling some olive oil, salt, and pepper over the florets first. Then, I made fresh linguini as described above, and threw the cauliflower flowers into the aglio e olio along with the pasta, and then I poured in two tablespoons of the colatura.
I won’t even try to describe it. If you are the kind of person who believes that consuming juice squeezed from salty little fishes can be a transformative experience, then you’ll know what I mean. If you’re not, forget I opened my mouth.