I Pescatori di Orbetello: Dinner straight from the Lagoon

I love the five minute drive to Orbetello from our home in Porto Ercole in Monte Argentario. I look out the window, waiting for that curve after you pass the sandy stretch of Feniglia, when suddenly you hit the flat lagoon and you see the old town of Orbetello rising right out of the water, a little reminiscent of Venice.

Pescatori di Orbetello restaurantOrbetello Duomo
Orbetello painted tiles

Orbetello’s lagoon characterises and in many ways defines the city. Created by two sand bars (the beautiful, long, soft-sanded beaches of Feniglia and Giannella) that connect the rugged, island-like Monte Argentario promontory to the Tuscan mainland. Orbetello’s finger-shaped centro storico juts out into the lagoon so that the town is surrounded almost completely by water. It is this body of water that has long been the main source and inspiration behind Orbetello’s seafood-strong cuisine, which is known in particular for its smoked eel and bottarga – and this is the only place in Tuscany where you’ll find any such thing.

The laid-back, breezy (literally, with a lagoon on both sides of the town, the air blows through the streets as if someone has opened all the windows) atmosphere of the well-preserved old town has much to do with its Spanish past, when it was under Spanish rule from 1557 for about 150 years. While the Spanish took care of much of the civic architecture that you still see around town, their influence resonates strongest in the lagoon-cuisine.

Porta a Terra, OrbetelloorbetelloPorta a Terra, Orbetello

Orbetello’s bottarga (which is only cured for about a week, resulting in a compact but soft product, in contrast to Sardegna’s bottarga, which can be cured for up to six months) and eel in the form of anguilla sfumata (spicy, smoked eel) and scaveccio (fried and marinated in vinegar, this dish takes its name directly from escabesce, the Spanish method of curing fish under vinegar), all show remnants of this period – and are still the town’s best known delicacies today.

During the months of August and September, when grey mullets are carrying eggs, the fish are caught during their natural migration at the mouth of the lagoon, then worked entirely by hand – egg sacs are removed carefully so as not to break them, cleaned, then placed under salt for brief curing, after which the egg sacs are rinsed and left to dry in a controlled environment of 18°C for 7-8 days. It is full-flavoured and as salty as the sea, so a little goes a long way. The care with which the bottarga is produced is reflected in the price – a plate of spaghetti alla bottarga di Orbetello will often be the most expensive primo on the menu.

I Pescatori di Orbetello Restaurant
Pescatori di Orbetello terrace bar

Bottarga di Orbetello and anguilla sfumata, in true Slow Food fashion, are making a come back as locally-made specialties thanks to the efforts of the Orbetello Fishermen’s Cooperative (Cooperativa dei pescatori di Orbetello) to uphold the traditions of making these unique products. The Fishermen’s Cooperative also happens to be the best place to savour them – their headquarters and restaurant, in a converted nineteenth century horse stable, hovers right over the lagoon in prime position for watching the sun go down and it is a fantastic, informal spot for dinner.

A big hit with families, the outdoor tables are plastic and the plates are paper, but portions are generous, the view is spectacular and dinner – caught and prepared by the co-op’s members themselves – will cost you half (!) what it normally would in any restaurant around town.

The menu is short but sweet, usually involving a “fishermen’s antipasto platter” (a selection of things like chickpea and bonito salad, potato mash with bottarga and mixed crostini), a handful of primi or pasta dishes such as fusilli with zucchini and bottarga or penne with seabass ragu and secondi or mains of freshly caught, simply grilled, whole spigola (seabass) or orata (gilt-head bream), which are farmed in the lagoon by the co-op, or the famous anguilla sfumata or scaveccio (pictured below; if you’re curious to know what it’s like, it’s in a light batter, deep fried, soaked in vinegar, herbs and plenty of chilli and served cold. You can eat the whole thing, but some may like to remove the back bone if you don’t like the crunch. It’s deliciously spicy and sour in the one mouthful and oddly refreshing to eat in the summer, but it is also on the heavy side, so perhaps even share a portion). Cold bottles of white wine from nearby agriturismo and wine estate La Parrina go down nicely with the meal.

Orbetello - Fusilli with bottarga and zucchiniOrbetello - Anguilla Scaveccio
I pescatori di Orbetello

It works like this. Enter and you’ll find immediately the outdoor bar of the restaurant, which is also a good spot for a drink overlooking the lagoon as the sun sets (on weekends you’ll find live music here too). The entrance to the restaurant has a ticket holder – grab a number, grab a menu and choose what you want to eat. Order and pay straight away at the desk and then head out the back to the tables outside where you hand in your order and wait for your number to be called (it’s handy, if you’re not an Italian speaker, to grab your phrase book at this point to learn what your number is!). If you’ve got kids with you, there are plenty of high chairs available for the littler ones. Set your own table with cute paper placemats and plastic cutlery and cups, and wait for your meal – antipasti and primi will come out first and your mains will come out later.

If you like what you’ve eaten for dinner and want to take some home with you, you can buy vacuum packed bottarga and smoked eel directly from the restaurant too (ask at the bar or the cash register).

After you’ve watched the sun set like a giant red ball over the lagoon, walk back towards town through the old triple-arched Porta a Terra and down the lively Corso Italia. In the main piazza, you’ll find Gelateria Le Logge (Corso Italia, 78), a “natural” gelateria that I think has probably the best gelato I have ever tasted – and that’s saying something. It’s hard but if I had to pick just a couple flavours (as you do when you order a gelato, sadly, only a few fit on the cone), it’s usually the insanely creamy nocciola (hazelnut), sorbetto di more (blackberries) or the cioccolato fondente di Modica, a dairy-free, wickedly dark Modica chocolate sorbet.

I Pescatori di Orbetello:

Via G. Leopardi, 9 – Orbetello
Tel. 0564 860611
www.ipescatoridiorbetello.it

Visiting Orbetello:

Orbetello and Monte Argentario are just under 3 hours drive south of Florence and 1 hr 30 mins north of Rome on a relatively untouched part of the Tuscan coast in a beautiful area known as the Maremma. You can reach Orbetello easily by train from both Florence and Rome; the station is about 10 minutes outside of town and there is a bus that connects the station to the old town centre and Argentario’s two main towns, Porto Santo Stefano and Porto Ercole. It also makes a good base to visit not only Argentario but also Giglio Island (reached by ferry from Porto Santo Stefano), the hot springs in Saturnia and numerous beautiful little towns like Pitigliano, Sorano and Capalbio.

Side street in Orbetello

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Comments

6 Responses to “I Pescatori di Orbetello: Dinner straight from the Lagoon”
  1. You know how happy I was there, such a beautiful place, so easy going, such a fresh food and a breathtaking view! I just tried the bottarga, it’s fantastic!

  2. Val says:

    La Maremma has been on my radar for a while, but I think your meal may have cemented it!

  3. Kevin says:

    Emiko,

    Thank you for this timely post, as it made for a wonderful daytrip during our vacation. Even if we weren’t able to eat at the Cooperative (we were only there during the day), it was still a wonderful experience.

    Kevin

    P.S. While shopping at the Consorzio Agrario di Siena, we saw a huge display for the Cooperative and its products.

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