Rules Are {Sometimes} Made to Be Broken

There is a rule in Italy. No cheese on fish or seafood dishes.

One dark and rainy afternoon, when we were seated in the upstairs dining room of the Taverna San Trovaso in Venice, our attention was piqued by the French couple next to us. The husband had just requested cheese for his wife’s lunch.

You see, he had ordered pasta with a meat sauce, and she a pasta with clams. We were on tenterhooks waiting to see what would happen.

The server looked at the man’s meat sauce, and said he would be back “pronto.”

The server placed the cheese by the husband’s dinner plate. The husband picked up the cheese and started to pass it to his wife. After all, it was she who wanted cheese.

The server reached down with the alacrity of an eagle snatching its prey, seized the man’s wrist, and guided the cheese back down next to his plate. “No!”

The husband tried to argue that they were customers and the customer is always right. That got him nowhere. In the end, the server took the cheese away, for fear it would be used inappropriately. The rule is hard and fast: no cheese with fish or seafood.

I know that rule, and I have never broken it. Not until this past weekend, when I was seeking an appetizer to serve with a beautiful rosé - Fleur de l’Amaurigue. I came across a recipe for tuna-stuffed zucchini rolls and just sensed they would pair well with the rosé. You can read about it in the Provence WineZine.

Today’s recipe is from Il Cucchiaio d’Argento, one of the most trusted sources of traditional Italian cuisine. I was astonished to find that there was Parmigiano-Reggiano both in and on top of the tuna rolls. Honestly, I felt like I was cheating on Italy.

After some research I learned the ironclad rule may be broken when the fish concerned is canned tuna, baccalà (salt cod), cured sardines, and tinned anchovies. I felt much better. I would not have to turn myself in at the Italian Consulate.

The reason for the original rule? Italian cooks believe the milky saltiness of the cheese will overpower the delicate fish or seafood. If you are in Italy and are in the least bit unsure whether or not cheese is appropriate for any dish, just ask. You will avoid an international incident or becoming an embarrassment to your friends.

The narrow exception to this rule is a relief, as these zucchini rolls are wonderful!

~ David

Zucchine Ripieni di Tonno
from Il Cucchiaio d'Argento

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
3 medium zucchini
1 tablespoon snipped chives
1 whole anchovy in oil
1 5-ounce can oil-packed tuna (drained weight about 4 ounces)
1 egg
1 heaping tablespoon ground almonds
1 tablespoon of capers
2 ounces grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, divided
6 tablespoons dried breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped parsley
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped mint

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Cut off the ends of the zucchini. Cut the zucchini in half lengthwise and, with a mandoline at the thinnest setting, make thin and regular slices from the central parts. You should get 6 slices from each half for a total of 36. Keep the leftover pieces of zucchini and chop them well with a knife.

In a non-stick pan, melt the anchovy in the tablespoon of olive oil with the chives. Add the chopped zucchini bits and cook for 5 minutes; season with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat and let to cool. Transfer the zucchini mixture to the bowl of a food processor along with the drained tuna, capers, almonds, Parmigiano-Reggiano (reserve 3 tablespoons), egg, mint, parsley, and breadcrumbs and process to obtain a soft, but not too moist mixture. Season with salt and pepper. Add more breadcrumbs if too wet.

Place a walnut-sized piece of the filling at one end of a zucchini ribbon and roll up to form a small cylinder. Proceed in this way until the ingredients are used up and place them inside an 8-inch pan lined with parchment. Drizzle all over with olive oil and sprinkle with the reserved Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Bake in the preheated oven for 40 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from the oven and serve warm or at room temperature.

Makes 36.

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