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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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- Octopuses — The National Wildlife Federation
- The Most Popular Octopus Dishes in Italy — Taste Atlas
- What Percentage of the American Population Lives Near the Coast — NOAA.org
- Carpaccio — Wikipedia
- Carpaccio di Manzo — GialloZafferano
- Polipetti alla Luciana — Storie Napoli
- Il Polpo Arricciato una Tradizione di Bari — Visit Italy