Around Naples and the Amalfi Coast, the pezzogna – a local name for Pagellus bogaraveo, the red sea bream or blackspot sea bream – is considered a great delicacy by local gourmets, who rate it more highly than similar white-fleshed fish such as the more common orata (gilt-head sea bream) and spigola or branzino (sea bass). Found in relatively deep waters in the Western Mediterranean and the Eastern Atlantic (as far north as Norway), it’s a hermaphrodite, changing sex from male to female at some point between its second and seventh year of age.
The pezzogna is not an easy fish to acquire outside of southern Italy; as a substitute, Le Sirenuse’s executive chef Gennaro Russo suggest the fragolino or common pandora (Pagellus erithrynus), or, for North American readers, the black sea bass (Centropristis striata) or sheepshead (Archosargus probatocephalus). Those based in Australasia or East Asia should look to the barramundi or the better species of snapper. Even fresh cod or halibut would do. The key to this dish is its flavorsome simplicity, the way a simple, delicate white fish, is exalted by association with oven-roasted vine tomatoes, potatoes and thyme.
2 pezzogne or other sea bream, sea bass or porgy, total weight 1 – 1.2 kg
500g vine tomatoes
4 medium-sized potatoes
50ml olive oil
a sprig of thyme
sugar, salt and pepper to taste
The first task is best done by the fishmonger: the two fish should be filleted to create four more or less equal-sized fillets, without removing the skin.
Next, peel the potatoes and cut into rounds of 3 to 4mm, then place in a copper pan or ceramic frying pan with a splash of olive oil and fry until golden on both sides. Set aside.
The tomatoes should be separated from the vine and thrown into a pan of salted boiling water for around 30 seconds. Drain them in a colander, cool them down in a bowl of iced water, then peel (the skin should come off easily). At this point, cut them into quarters and scoop out and discard the seeds, leaving only the firm red flesh. Put in a roasting pan lined with baking paper, then season with a drizzle of olive oil, salt, pepper and, if they’re acidic, a sprinkling of white sugar (this shouldn’t be necessary if they’ve been picked in the height of summer, when the sun sweetens the flavour). Place in an oven at 80°C/175°F and leave for forty minutes (if your oven doesn’t go that low, set on as low a temperature as possible and reduce the cooking time). Set aside.
When the tomatoes and potatoes are ready, turn on the oven and set the temperature at 160°C/320°F. Slug some good olive into a copper pan or ceramic frying pan (a couple of tablespoons should do) and warm on a lively heat for a minute so before adding the fish fillets, skin side down. Fry lightly until golden brown – this should take around four minutes – then remove and place in a roasting pan, seasoning with salt and pepper. Put the browned potatoes in a separate roasting pan, seasoning with salt and pepper, and place these and the fish in the oven, adding another drizzle of olive oil to both pans if needed. After four minutes, remove the fish from the oven (taking care to keep it warm) and add the tomatoes to the pan with the potatoes, which should be left to roast for another two minutes.
Assemble the fish, potatoes and tomatoes on four plates, sprinkling a few thyme leaves onto each tomato, and serve.