Italian Food

Polpo, 5 Italian Foods That Will Make You Love It!

Polpo (Italian for octopus) refers to the animal and the Italian foods that feature it. Top five iconic polpo dishes not to be missed in Italy.

Polpo (Octopus) is found in every ocean of the world including every coast of the United States. Yet, with less than 10% of the total land in the contiguous United States being coastal territory it’s no wonder octopus dishes are not easy to find on the average American menu. Coming from the land-locked state of Ohio myself, octopus was not something I tried until I was nearly 30 years old and living in New York City.

Fast forward a decade later after eating my way across Italy from Sicily to Venice with my polpo-obsessed Italian husband and octopus has been redefined for me by the Italian culinary world. A trip to Italy offers countless opportunities to dive into the world of Italian foods famous for their creative uses of polpo. Dishes so delicious they have earned this strangely territorial mollusk the status of delicacy.

In today’s post, I’ll be sharing what octopus tastes like, five iconic polpo dishes that are a must in Italy, and tips for cooking polpo at home. Plus my own personal story of falling in love with Polpo in Italy.

Polpo

Technically polpo (meaning octopus in Italian) is a solo, seafaring cephalopod with eight tentacles lined with suction cups used to hunt pray at night. In Italian, polpo is a masculine singular noun (the plural being polpi) and refers to both the animal and Italian foods starring octopus.

Polpo Italian Food

What Octopus Tastes Like

Cooked properly polpo is slightly sweet and tender, similar in taste to lobster and in texture to squid. Raw, boiled, grilled, or fried polpo is an incredibly versatile ingredient able to carry the characteristics and flavors of whatever it’s cooked with. So when it comes to understanding how octopus tastes, the most important factor to consider is how the polpo dish is prepared.

For the culinarily adventurous eater, there’s Il polpo arricciato (the curled octopus). A tradition in Bari where polpo fresh from the sea is tenderized by hand against rocks. The final step is immersing the polpo in a container of seawater and rocking it until the tentacles curl (as shown in the video below) thus the name. Polpo arricciato tastes fresh, salty, and yet slightly sweet.

While most of the following videos are in Italian, the relatively few ingredients and the ease of preparation translate into any language.

While Polpo arricciato is as pure an octopus flavor as one can find, on the opposite end of the spectrum in is Polpo fritto (fried octopus). Lightly breaded with semolina flour (made from durum wheat) and finished with a squeeze of lemon. In this dish, polpo takes on the earthier, nuttier flavor of semolina.

Video: Polpo Fritto Recipe

5 Polpo Dishes to Try in Italy

The South dominates Italian seafood cuisine totally 40% of all the fish consumed in Italy. Yet modern refrigeration and the creativity of today’s young Chefs have brought seafood including polpo to menus all across Italy. From Venetian Polpette di Polpo to Polpo con Patate here are the top five dishes that personally made me fall in love with polpo in Italy.

5. Polpo alla Griglia (Grilled Octopus)

Polpo alla Griglia (grilled octopus) provides the perfect way to taste the flavor of polpo itself. Similar to Pulpo a la Gallega from Spain, Polpo alla Griglia is the ultimate introductory dish to octopus unlike the raw preparation of Polpo arricciato mentioned above. Cooking octopus in water before grilling it marries the best of both textural worlds together. Under a snappy, crispy exterior lies succulent, slightly sweet polpo with a bit of smokey flavor from the grill.

Video: Polpo alla Griglia recipe

4. Carpaccio di Polpo (Carpaccio of Octopus)

Carpaccio is an Italian hors d’oeuvre of thinly sliced raw beef that was invented by Giuseppe Cipriani (of Harry’s Bar in Venice) in 1963. To accomdate countess Amalia Nani Mocenigo avoidance of cooked meat, Mr. Cipriani prepared Carpaccio di Manzo (beef) for an art exhibit celebrating Vittore Carpaccio. Thus Carpaccio was born.

Unlike Carpaccio di Manzo which is truly raw, Carpaccio di Polpo is boiled octopus, that is pressed and then rolled into a cylindrical shape before being chilled for 24 hours in the refrigerator. Once chilled the Carpaccio is thinly sliced and seasoned with oil, citrus juice, and a dash of salt. The result is an elegant dish perfect for a light summer meal.

Video: Carpaccio di Polpo

Side note, if you get a chance to try Carpaccio di Manzo in Italy, do! Carpaccio di Manzo is a surprisingly light dish often served with arugula and thin slices of Grana Padano cheese.

3. Polpette di Polpo (Octopus meatballs)

Venetians love their Cicchetti! Cicchetti like tapas are savory snacks or side dishes, typically served in a bar or informal restaurant. Moscardini alla Veneziana (also called Folpetti alla Veneziana) is a classic Cicchetti dish of baby octopus boiled and served simply with oil, salt, and lemon juice. My favorite though is bite-sized Polpette di Polpo (Octopus meatballs). These crunchy little nuggets give way to a creamy polpo center that will have you instantly ordering a second round of Prosecco and Cicchetti in Venice. Planning a trip to Venice, Italy? Here are our Top 20 Cicchetti Bars & Restaurants in Venice!

2. Polpo alla Luciana (Luciana octopus)

On the more savory side of Italian food favorites is Polpo alla Luciana (Luciana octopus). Luciana refers to the inhabitants of Santa Lucia, a waterside district of Naples where octopus had been cooked in a savory sauce of cherry tomatoes, capers, and olives for generations. The sauce from Polpo alla Luciana is outstanding and never left behind rather soaked up with crusty bread.

Video: Polpo alla Luciana Recipe

1. Polpo con Patate (Octopus and potatoes)

If there is only one dish you try in Italy with polpo make it this one! Polpo goes well with beans, pasta, mixed vegetables, crunch bread, but above all potatoes. Potatoes compliment the texture and versatility of polpo perfectly. So much so that there are different versions of polpo con patate (Octopus and potatoes) in many regions making it a light summertime Italian food favorite all across Italy.

Insalata tiepida di polpo e patate is warm octopus and potato salad while Ligurian-style octopus and potato salad incorporates Taggiasca olives and olive oil and is served chilled. Along the Italian Riveria in Liguria Insalata di polpo alla Ligure (Ligurian octopus salad) octopus, potatoes, and carrots or celery are seasoned with pesto. While Polpo con patate alla Siciliana (Sicilian-style octopus with potatoes) incorporates celery, garlic, and cherry tomatoes in with the potatoes while they are being cooked.

In short, warm or cold the magical combination of polpo and patate is a classic all across Italy. How it’s dressed up or down is where the fun comes in eating a familiar classic in each region.

Video: Polpo e Patate Recipe

How to Cook Octopus (Polpo) at Home

While taste is the pro of polpo there is a con. Polpo can be tricky to cook. Undercooked or overcooked polpo can be too tough or rubbery to eat. This is where the Italian tradition of handing down recipes and cooking techniques comes in. Italians have mastered the art of timing when it comes to cooking octopus. To cook polpo perfectly, slow and low is the way to go. The golden rule of cook time for polpo is 20-25 minutes for every 500 grams of polpo.

To cook the octopus perfectly, the heat must be minimal and the cooking slow; moreover, the water must never boil, but only just simmer.
Once cooked, the octopus must rest for about twenty minutes in its still hot broth, remaining in the pot, which will be covered with a lid.
An ancient tradition, halfway between truth and legend, has it that in order to obtain an excellent cooking of the octopus, corks must also be immersed in the pot. 
It is no coincidence that many street vendors, offering boiled octopus as street food, have huge tubs in which you can find corks.
In reality, the use of corks is due to the fact that the seller, to avoid immersing his arm in the tub to take the octopus lying on the bottom, uses to tie its tentacles to a string attached to a cork which, remaining at afloat, it helps him in recovery.

Italian Food Academy

These days cooking polpo at home is made easier by the ubiquitous precooked Polpo cotto a vapore (steamed octopus) in Italian supermarkets. If you have an Eataly with Polpo cotto a vapore near you, this is definitely the easiest way to cook a polpo dish at home.

Polpo Cotto A Vapore
Polpo Cotto A Vapore

Finally, my own love story with polpo. My first introduction to polpo as an Italian food ingredient was a Parts Unknown episode gone wrong. In it, the late great Anthony Bourdain went snorkeling for octopus in Sicily. Well sort of. Take a look.

Video of Anthony Bourdain hunting Polpo in Sicily, Italy.

When not filming for an American TV series, Italian fishermen play on natural instinct using an amphora fishing technique to catch octopus. Historically terracotta vases called amphora were tied to cords and lowered to the seabed offering the octopus a safe hiding place for eating their prey and sleeping. Pots with the remains of crabs or shells scattered outside are hoisted up early in the morning revealing an easily caught banquet of polpo. A far more romantic portrayal of an iconic Italian culinary staple if you ask me.

As much as I loved learning about food from Anthony Bourdain, it was my husband Paolo who taught me to love polpo. While I grew up eating hotdogs in Ohio all summer, Paolo grew up eating Insalata di polpo alla Ligure at the coast with his Nonna. Always trying to return to those sweet memories, whenever anything polpo is on the menu, Paolo orders it.

The more Paolo and I began to explore Italy the more of Paolo’s polpo dishes I got to steal bites of. By the time I tried Polpo alla Griglia on the Amalfi coast, I was a goner. Ever since then Polpo and Paolo are the polpette del mio cuore (meatballs of my heart.)

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References

9 comments

  1. I’m a vegetarian so I can’t exactly say eating polpo is on my to-do list 😂, but you definitely have a point when you say Italians don’t waste any part of the animal when it comes to meal preparation.

    Not sure if you’ve seen the show The Boys but in the latest season, there is a notorious scene that involves eating octopus—it was all visual effects and no actually octopus was involved, but the context was quite creepy 😅

        1. Thanks for the warning! I’ve been a wee bit unnerved by all the graphic violence portrayed in entertainment lately and find myself opting for happy shows like Ted Laso and Loot and Only Murders in the Building, which sounds graphic but doesn’t glorify it, more who done it.

  2. I learned how to cook squid when I was a chef, but I hear cooking octopus is similar. I really love cooking and eating squid. If I get a chance to order the deep-fried squid at a restaurant as a starter, I always do! I admit though, I am in love with octopi as an animal. I couldn’t help it when I learned how they have a high level of emotional intelligence. I was at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and I saw some videos of an octopus, and the cutest one was it having a cuddle with its handler. My Dad said he read a story once that an octopus researcher went into work crying because her father had died and the octopus picked up on that and tried to comfort her. All this doesn’t mean I wouldn’t try octopus, but I have a soft spot for my squid

    1. Such an endearing story! I completely respect the love for Octopus. One thing that makes me more comfortable being a meat (and with that I mean seafood too) eater in Italy is that Italians don’t waste any part of the animal. Where did you learn your trade as a chef?

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