S.F. Cioppino: A Vintage Taste of Fisherman’s Wharf

Cook, Regional Spotlight, Sicily, What We're Eating, Why We Cook

This post comes to us courtesy of writer and Williams-Sonoma creative consultant Laura Martin Bacon.

 

If anyone knows the historic secrets of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, it’s my friend Vince Rafello. This coastside cook combines a briny Sicilian-Portuguese pedigree with a fishing heritage that dates back nearly three centuries.

 

“We’re seafaring folks,” he tells me. “I’m pretty sure we’ve all got saltwater running through our veins.”

 

On a cool, windy spring afternoon, I sit by the fire with Vince and his wife Ruth as he shares fond memories of a dockside childhood. I’m fascinated by his stories of happy years spent helping out at the family’s fish market – one of the first on Fisherman’s Wharf.

 

Rafello’s Fish Market was founded in 1915 by Vince’s grandfather, a local fisherman who ran the business with the help of his wife and two sons.

 

“The wharf was a great place to grow up,” Vince tells me. “I used to go crab fishing with my dad. When I was a kid, the water in the bay was so clean we could keep live crabs in underwater wooden boxes beneath the wharf. Whenever we needed fresh crab, we’d just grab a few and cook them in front of the restaurant. It was a tiny place, without even a stove – just a few tables and a Bunsen burner.

 

“As a ten year old, I’d make giant Dungeness crab cocktails and Louies. We’d take big handfuls of fresh crabmeat and mix them with a homemade Louie dressing that was so thick a fork would stand up in it.”

 

After her husband passed away, Vince’s grandmother and the rowdy Rafello boys continued to keep customers well fed with fresh seafood cocktails and steaming clam chowder, which Vince and his sister lugged down to the wharf in big pots from the Rafello family kitchen in North Beach.

 

That lively home kitchen was also the place where Vince’s dad cooked up fragrant kettles of his legendary crab cioppino for family and friends – along with a steady stream of appreciative local police, who didn’t mind checking their weapons at Nonna Rafello’s door. Those fabled Sunday dinners are now a delicious part of San Francisco history.

 

“My dad was a gourmet cook and didn’t know it. He could do anything with any kind of fish,” Vince recalls. “He used to make his own wine, too, down in Nonna’s basement. The family called it ‘Dago Red.’ I think the last time we made it was back in 1948, using grapes we’d picked in Saratoga. I remember smelling like a winery for about a week.”

 

Today, Vince serves his crab cioppino on the same scarred wooden table his dad and grandmother used – only now the table occupies a place of honor in his kitchen in the tiny coastal town of Montara, California (about 25 miles south of San Francisco). Another tribute to vintage seaside traditions: Vince’s paintings of Fisherman’s Wharf back in the good old days.

 

As an authentic wharf-raised cook, Vince tells me two signature secrets for great cioppino:

 

Use the ingredients you love best. Vince says he never makes cioppino exactly the same way twice ­– it all depends on his mood and whatever fish he’s brought home from the docks or our local fishmongers. His only criterion: the seafood should be “so fresh that you can taste the ocean.”

 

Share your homemade cioppino with people you love. The classic fisherman’s stew is a favorite on the Rafello family table whenever fresh crab is in season (which, in our area, is usually from November to late spring).

 

Fisherman’s Crab Cioppino

 

This recipe, Vince warns, is not for the faint of heart. Its secret ingredient is indeed fresh crab – so fresh, in fact, that the feisty crustaceans are cracked while still alive and placed directly into the simmering cioppino base. This classic method – the same one used at the original Rafello’s Fish Market  – allows every drop of flavorful juice to permeate the broth.

 

If you’re squeamish about live crab cracking, it’s fine to substitute crab that’s been prepared by your local fishmonger. Simply add the cracked crab (along with a hearty portion of flavorful “crab fat”) during the last few minutes of cooking.

 

Ingredients

 

Seafood:

4 large live crabs

1 lb. large raw prawns

2 lbs. raw clams (preferably Manila)

1 lb. calamari rings

Optional: 2 lbs. firm fish filets, cut into chunks (use halibut, sea bass, salmon – or a combination)

 

Sauce:

2 to 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 medium onions, chopped

1 cup thinly sliced celery

1 large green bell pepper finely chopped

4 cups stewed tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)

½ cup Italian parsley, chopped

½ cup tomato paste

1 cup clam juice

1 to 2 cups water

¼ cup olive oil

Pinch of crushed red pepper

 

Instructions

 

Preparing the sauce:

In a large stockpot over medium-high heat, sauté garlic, onions, celery, green pepper and parsley in olive oil until tender.

Add stewed tomatoes, tomato paste, clam juice and crushed red pepper.

Bring to a low boil, then lower heat and simmer for at least an hour, adding water if needed to keep the volume of liquid the same.

 

Cracking the crabs:

Being careful to avoid finger injury (a perpetual hazard among professional crustacean crackers), take a firm hold of the live crabs and remove the bodies from the shell. Split bodies in half and crack legs. Reserve crab fat.

 

Making the cioppino:

Add cracked crab, crab fat, raw clams and fish (if using) to sauce. Simmer for about 15 to 20 minutes (taste a crab leg to check for doneness). Add calamari rings during the last five minutes. While the cioppino is simmering, bring a pot of water to a boil and season with a pinch of salt. Cook prawns for one minute, then add to cioppino during the last two or three minutes of cooking. Cioppino is done when all clams have opened.

 

Serving the cioppino:

Serve the cioppino like Vince’s dad always did: over freshly cooked rigatoni (to soak up the broth). Vince suggests accompanying the stew with a caesar salad, crusty sourdough bread and a bottle of ‘Dago Red’.

 

About the author: Laura is a longtime writer and creative consultant for Williams-Sonoma and other well-known entities. She’s also the Culinary Creative Director of DooF (“food” backwards), an organization that uses multi-media entertainment, education and live events to help kids and families discover the magic of food. DooF explores every aspect of food – from flavors, history, science and cultural traditions to the exciting journey from source-to-table. Laura’s mission: to make good food fun – at home, in the classroom and beyond.

15 comments about “S.F. Cioppino: A Vintage Taste of Fisherman’s Wharf

  1. James

    This sounds fantastic Laura! I just might have to swing by the wharf now for a bowl.

    I remember all the old Italian men in my hometown making Dago red. Every fall you’d see loads of grape crates all piled up in the gutter waiting for the trash man.

    Reply
  2. Mary

    Fabulous story & recipe. What a family! Wish the old wharf was still the real deal… Thanks, Laura.

    Reply
  3. carl rafello

    This is great to a story about our family. The last time I fixed Ciappino was with my cousin Vince at his daughters house. I couldn’t believe how everyone just gobbled it up, of course we had the traditional ceaser salad and red wine (sorry it wasn’t dago-red). If I remember there weren’t any left overs when we were all done making —-’s of ourselves along with many friends. I salute Vince and his fantastic memory of how to prepare all these great foods.
    Thanks Cous,
    Carl

    Reply
  4. Weekly Wrap-Up (4/1-4/7)

  5. Richard Robinson

    Vince was a teacher of mine at Town School in San Francisco during the late 50s and early 60s. I would love to hear from him. He was a great teacher, loved engaging students and was warmly embraced by all. Thanks- Richard

    Reply
  6. Roger Salz

    Vince Raffello was our PE teacher at Town School in the 60′s. I always enjoyed talking, joking around and gossiping with him rather than playing kickball. I never knew his roots were at the wharf. Great article about a great man. Pls. Give Vince my email address, I would love to get in touch with him and apologize for being a snotty brat!

    Reply
  7. Craig Mahan

    Having been at that table as a young lad,both with my family&Rafello’s, I can tell you that cioppino is the best i’ve ever had anywhere on this planet! Grandpa Rafello would be proud.Not only has Mr.Rafello past on his love of cooking to his kids but also my family. Thank you Mr.Rafello! This recipe was a family “secret” for years and now it’s out! So try it,love it and thank Grandpa Rafello.
    Craig Mahan

    Reply
  8. Terry Norton

    I have enjoyed this great friend’s recipe & gourmet cooking on many occasions with the “Magnificent Seven”. His family lore is a part of the City’s past.

    Reply
  9. Laura Martin Bacon Post author

    It’s a pleasure and a privilege to be able share Vince’s briny seaside stories and original cioppino recipe with the world!

    I’ve passed along all your comments to Vince — and if you have any questions about SF and the city’s recipes in the good old days, please feel free to post them here and I’ll make sure Vince gets them.

    Reply
  10. Shane Stewart

    Hi! My great grandma was Florinda Rafello (Hansen), I believe Vince’s Aunt, in some of the pictures. Carl, can you please email me. I would love some more info or pictures. I cherish the memories visiting her on weekends at her house on leavenworth street as a child. You can email me @ svs9000@yahoo.com Thank You!

    Reply
  11. Hugo Giovannini

    this can’t be snooky could it? This Hugo Giovannini saw your name on cioppino recipe I will be making some with my son on sat.Will be having lunch with the bruins on 19th will tell them that I email you, hope all is well.

    Reply
  12. Lou Rafello

    I am probally one of the few Rafello’s Left I believe that there’s only like 5 or 6 men left but I could be wrong. But I do remember being at my Aunte Florence’s house with my father Louis Frank Rafello and my mother Rosalie Rafello having a family dinner either every Saturday or Sunday dad and his sister Florence use to cook cioppino on those days it bring’s me back when I was a child. Those were the day’s!!!! Thanks for you time Louis J Rafello

    Reply
  13. Janet Pallavicini

    I’m from old school San Francisco, born in Haight Ashbury in 1930. So I learned to cook the chipinno from old Italian lady using the fresh live crab. BUT now live in sunny Arizona and we are lucky to get any crab.
    But Costco is having it this weekend so I’m treating to family to Fathers Day Feast. Oh how I miss it.
    Janet in AZ

    Reply

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