Cacciucco at The Union Square Cafe

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Some people are haunted by ghosts, others are haunted by a sense of meaninglessness in a vast, expanding universe; but me? I’m haunted by food.

Restaurant dishes, dishes I make I home: it doesn’t matter. I crave them, I want them. Lately, I’ve been haunted by a dish I ate two weeks ago with my friend Lauren who kindly agreed to cat-sit for me when I was in Seattle. As a reward for her cat-sitting, I took her to The Union Square Cafe for lunch and it was there that I encountered the dish that’d haunt me for weeks to come: the cacciucco you see in the picture above.

Let’s start with pronunciation: according to Wikipedia, Cacciucco is pronounced: “/kat╩âuk:o/” Wait, say WHAT Wikipedia? There’s a “t” sound in a word with no “t”? You must jest. Italian readers, tell me Wikipedia is jesting.

The waitress clearly didn’t think Wikipedia was jesting, she corrected me when I ordered it from the menu; I pronounced it “CATCHY UCCO.” She instantly corrected me–she had a haughty Austrian accent and an off-putting aggressive personality–so I felt thoroughly chastised. I still can’t remember, though, if she pronounced it with a “t.”

Anyway, Cacciucco is a fish stew that comes from Livorno. It’s cooked with wine, tomatoes and chiles and that alone should make you crave it. But what I loved about The Union Square Cafe’s version was how artfully it was put together.

The menu describes it as: “Cacciucco of Branzino, Mussels, Octopus and Shrimp with Fregola, Gigante Beans and Cappezzana Olive Oil.” (Did I ever tell you about the time I ate dinner with a daughter of the Cappezzana Olive Oil estate? I didn’t? Maybe some other time!)

I imagined a robust stew with shells and eyes and fins and all the gunk you normally see in a fish stew (well it depends where you are). Here, everything was done for you: the mussels were out of their shell, the shrimp was out of its shell, the branzino was seared so the skin was crispy and laid on top.

More importantly, though–almost like a great pasta dish–all of these elements were unified by both the flavor (the wine, the tomatoes, the spice) and the other textures involved: the beans (which balanced the meatiness of the fish), the fregola (which gave more of a bite and absorbed the sauce) and some kind of greens that were also thrown in that gave the dish depth and color.

In many ways, and I think you might agree just looking at the picture, this dish is a mini-masterpiece. It’s also one of the most expensive dishes on the lunch menu at $26; but if you’re splurging anyway, and you’re craving something hardy yet light enough that you won’t feel weighed down the rest of the day: this is your dish.

Bravo to the Union Square Cafe for making a Cacciucco fan out of me: now if I could only say it, all would be well.

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