Fritto misto di mare is classic coastal Italian fare, served at seaside restaurants all over the peninsula. It’s a dish that embodies the “don’t mess with a good thing” approach that Italian cuisine is famous for: locally caught seafood is lightly floured, fried, and served with just a squeeze of lemon. This version, known as a frittura di paranza in Campania and other parts of Southern Italy, features crispy shell-on shrimp, tender squid, and small whole fish. Paired with a chilled Falanghina, it's a dinner party showstopper.
Sourcing the right seafood is arguably the hardest part of this recipe. There are no set rules for what must be included, but the dish is meant to evoke the bounty hauled in by small Italian fishing boats known as paranze, which usually includes a mixture of crustaceans like shrimp, cephalopods like calamari and cuttlefish, and small fin fish like anchovies. Squid and shrimp are relatively easy to come by in the US, but the fresh Mediterranean sardines and anchovies that are famously fished off the Amalfi coast aren't. North American smelt, which are typically sold already cleaned, work well as a stand-in, even though they have a much milder flavor. Of course, you can also omit fish entirely and just make a shrimp and squid frittura.
Shell-on shrimp are ideal for fritto misto. The shells protect the shrimp meat from overcooking, while also imparting flavor thanks to glutamates and nucleotides in the shells that are absorbed by the meat during frying. On top of that, the shells crisp up when fried, providing a crunchy and completely edible coating without the need for a heavy dredge. Medium to large shrimp work best for this recipe because they fry up quickly, and their relatively thin shells provide just the right amount of crunch. We always recommend purchasing individually quick frozen shrimp as opposed to shrimp that have already been thawed (most shrimp available for purchase are frozen as soon as they are harvested to preserve texture and flavor). This is particularly important for head-on shrimp, as the heads contain enzymes that can make the shrimp’s meat mushy, and freezing halts this process.
The dredge for a frittura di paranza is simple. Traditionally, the seafood is tossed in semola rimacinata (finely ground semolina flour) or all-purpose flour until just coated and then fried. It's much lighter than the dredge used for Italian-American-style fried calamari, which needs to be able to stand up to being dunked and dipped in tomato sauce. To keep the coating to a dusting, I skip the milk-soaking step that Tim uses in his calamari recipe, but I kept the additions of cornstarch and baking powder, which help keep the seafood crisp once it comes out of the hot oil.
Frying the seafood in batches at a relatively high temperature ensures that it all cook quickly and evenly. During testing I found that the shell-on shrimp maintained crispness longest after frying, followed by squid. The higher moisture content of smelt causes them to lose their crunchy exterior quickest, so I fry them last while holding the fried shrimp and calamari in a warm oven. Once everything's fried, pile the seafood on a platter with lemon wedges and serve it up with some wine alongside.
Using kitchen shears or a sharp paring knife, cut through shrimp shells and devein shrimp without removing the shells. Pat dry with paper towels and set aside.
Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 200°F (95°C). Set a wire rack in a rimmed baking sheet and place a colander on top of the rack. Set a second wire rack in another rimmed baking sheet and line rack with paper towels. In a large Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat to 375°F (190°C).
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk together flour, cornstarch, and baking powder until thoroughly combined. Pat squid dry with paper towels and transfer to dredge mixture. Toss to evenly coat, then gently shake off excess flour and transfer squid to colander set over wire rack. Shake colander to sift out any excess flour, then transfer squid in a single layer to wire rack. Repeat process with the smelt, followed by the shrimp.
Add shrimp to oil and fry until light golden brown, stirring occasionally to prevent shrimp from sticking together, 2 to 3 minutes. Using a spider skimmer or slotted spoon, transfer shrimp to prepared paper towel–lined rack, season lightly with salt, then transfer to oven to keep warm.
Return oil to 375°F (190°C) and add half the squid. Fry until golden brown, stirring occasionally to prevent pieces from sticking to each other, about 3 minutes. Transfer squid to rack with shrimp, season lightly with salt, and return to oven to keep warm. Repeat with remaining squid.
Return oil to 375°F (190°C) and add the smelt. Fry until smelt are pale golden and just cooked through, about 3 minutes. Transfer to rack with fried seafood and season lightly with salt. Transfer seafood to a serving platter lined with parchment or butcher paper and serve immediately with lemon wedges.
Make sure to use shell-on, if not head-on shrimp for this recipe. The shells help prevent the shrimp meat from overcooking and impart flavor to the meat, thanks to glutamates and nucleotides in the shells that are absorbed by the meat during frying. On top of that, the shells crisp up when fried, providing a crunchy and completely edible coating without the need for a heavy dredge. Fried shrimp heads are delicious as well.
Sardines and other small fish commonly used for fritto misto di mare are generally unavailable in the United States, but smelt make a very good substitute. Smelt are generally sold cleaned (heads removed and gutted). Frozen smelt can be purchased online from purveyors such as Wulf's Fish.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Like most fried foods, fritto misto is best enjoyed immediately.