A few weeks ago, when Hubby and I were in Arizona visiting Peggy and Sunil, we went to dinner at T. Cooks, where a cioppino was featured as one of the evening's specials. I was sorely tempted, but had been warned that seafood wasn't the greatest in Scottsdale. When I passed in favor of another dish, Peggy noted with surprise, "I remember when you ate cioppino at every restaurant we went to for almost a year."
And that year would have been 1998; I had cioppino for the first time at The Food Studio and fell in love with the saffron infused seafood stew. Cioppino was fashionable that year - it seemed to be on every menu at every restaurant we visited. I've eaten countless versions of this stew, a San Francisco answer to the French bouillabaisse, but I think that first dish is still the best. Like bouillabaisse, cioppino is a stew that evolved from the ethnic tastes of its inventors, and the largesse of the ocean.
Although its history has never been verified, most agree that cioppino was created in San Francisco though they can't pinpoint when; it wasn't until after World War II that the stew became known outside of San Francisco. The first published recipe appeared in 1918. The story goes that cioppino was invented by the Italian and Portuguese fishermen who concocted the stew based on the day's catch. Cioppino was originally prepared on the boats while the fishermen were at sea, with fresh catch straight from the water. Its name was supposedly derived from ciuppin, a possible corruption of the Genovese word for suppin, or "little soup." Another theory is that the name came from the foreigner slang to "chip-in-o," or, to chip in, as the fisherman partaking in the stew were expected to contribute fish to the meal.
As a result of the haphazard ingredients, based on what the ocean yielded, cioppino is a happily versatile dish. It's usually a stew based comprised of tomatoes, onion and garlic, but the herbs run the gamut from thyme to sage, and within the soup itself clams can be substituted with mussels, different white fish can be used, and red wine occasionally replaces white wine (I prefer the latter). It's really a matter of preference and availability.
I made a mistake today substituting tomato sauce for tomato paste; it made the resulting stew entirely too tomato-y and red. I'm also much more partial to the pale, reddish-gold stew I first had at Food Studio, which owed its hue and fragrance to a liberal dousing of saffron. Still, it's hard to go wrong with a fresh seafood stew.