The main ingredients are some kind of white fish with firm flesh, and a great deal of seafood, which makes it expensive to make away from coastal markets.
The base is tomatoes. The stock can be water or white wine. To make it, you sauté onion, garlic, and bell pepper, add tomato sauce and whole tomatoes, wine and some herbs. You then simmer this mixture to thicken, then add the fish and seafood, cover until cooked, then serve with bread.
You can buy jars of sauce-base for the soup ready to use. Some places, such as Trader Vic’s, sell both the sauce, and bags of frozen cioppino mix ready to toss into the sauce. The frozen mix consists of fish, mussels, bay scallops and shrimps.
Unlike European versions of this soup such as Cacciucco and Ciuppin, which often put a piece of bread or toasted bread in a bowl and serve the soup over it, Cioppio is served with bread on the side, and given that this is San Francisco, the bread of course is preferably sour dough.
Homemade versions often end up reddish-brown, whereas restaurant versions are very red.
The Calabrese version is served over toast, garnished with fresh garlic.
Many like to claim that Cioppio is an American food creation, but sadly, despite the tens of thousands of things invented in America, this isn’t one of them. Italians chuckle at the thought that it was invented in America, and wonder if perhaps in the same vein spaghetti, pizza and the mafia weren’t also invented there.
Cioppio emerged as an American version of the Genovese fish stew called “cioppin” in the Ligurian dialect of Genoa, Italy.
Many of the Italian immigrants to San Francisco were from Genoa. Cioppio is either one version of cioppin that caught on in San Francisco, or the result of a melding of traditions from Genovese and Calabrian or Sicilian immigrants.
But, there is no doubt that Cioppio is an Italian dish. There’s so many different versions along the Italian coast, that there’s practically a different one every 100 metres.
This kind of fish stew probably came about because fishermen would use for themselves stuff from their catch that was good, but that had limited commercial value at the time — crab, squid, monkfish.
Cioppio started to be served in restaurants in San Francisco in the 1930s.
One of the restaurants in San Francisco known among tourists for its Cioppio is Taratino’s, opened in 1946 by Dan Sweeney Jr. and Gene McAteer. They called the restaurant Taratino’s because the building they leased was owned by the Taratino family. The restaurant is still extant as of 2008.
Literature & Lore
“Cioppino: To serve Cioppino: It’s best to serve this stew from the kitchen. Fill large soup plates with each kind of fish, then pour hot tomato sauce over all. Cioppino is a whole meal in itself — but rather a heavy one. Have lots of paper napkins on hand for guests — even bibs would not be amiss!
2 pounds fresh cockles
1 fresh crab
1 pound prawns
5 pounds rock cod or striped bass
1/2 cup olive olive
3 medium sized onions, thinly sliced
2 or 3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup chopped parsley
1 (No. 2 1/2) can solid-pack tomatoes
2 cups tomato sauce
1/2 cup Burgundy or Sherry
salt and pepper
Soak cockles in fresh water for at least one hour. Clean crab, cut up into 6 pieces and crack shell. Clean prawns and remove black vein along the back. Cut rock cod or bass into 1 1/4-inch slices. Cook onions in olive oil until golden brown. Add garlic and parsley, cook 2 minutes longer, then add tomatoes and tomato sauce. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer 30 to 45 minutes. Add wine and blend. Arrange in a deep saucepan in layers, the cockles, pieces of crab, prawns, and slices of rock cod or bass. Pour tomato sauce over all, cover and cook about 30 minutes. (Do not stir but move saucepan back and forth over the flame to prevent fish from sticking.) Serves 8 to 10.” — Lee, Martha. 100 Years of California Cooking. Oakland, California: Tribune Press. 1949. Page 34.
“The dish is made over charcoal braziers, made of whatever the day’s catch supplies. It may be shellfish entirely, or seafood and shellfish, the various kinds washed, cleaned, layered in the pot; then a rich garlicky tomato sauce added and the collection cooked…..Here we give you the recipe exactly as it’s made in the Taratino kitchen.” — Paddleford, Clementine (1898 – 1967). This Week Magazine. March 1949.
The word cioppino is also used in Florence, where you may see on restaurant menus “Cioppino di molluschi e crostacei” (for 21 Euros, 2005 prices.)
In some parts of Italy, the word “cioppino” is unknown, because they know the soup by another name entirely. Some Italians just call it a “stufato di pesce” (“fish stew”.) Some Italian versions put it through a food mill, to make a creamed fish soup called “Passato di pesce” that can also be served as a pasta sauce.
Disregard accounts invented by wags which attribute the name to “chip-in-o”, where all fishermen would pitch something in.
“Cioppino” is also a slang word in Italian for men younger than about 25 who are a little drunk.
Called “Cioppiano” in Sicilian.
 Saekel, Karola. Italian by Name, Irish at Heart. San Francisco Chronicle. Wednesday, 3 November 1999.