The fish to use for this recipe is royal sea bream. These are identified by the bass-like silvery grey colour, rather imperial Roman bump on their nose, and their astronomical cost. Other bream like red or black, or red mullet, are less good, but if fresh, perfectly acceptable. The fish is baked on a bed of sliced potatoes and onions, moistened with olive oil. I first ate this fish in a transport café near Livorno; would that the British greasy spoons could even come close.
It’s preferable to use one fish, but two smaller ones would do. Sea bass can be substituted successfully. Ask your fishmonger to scale, de-gill and gut the fish. See for how to clean the interior.
Lightly oil the fish and cut two slashes in each side nearly through to the spine. Put a few slices of lemon in the interior of each fish and season there as well. Place the fish, staring beadily at you, on the potatoes, moisten with olive oil and season, then roast for 20 minutes.
Remove from the oven and check for doneness, it may well need 5–10 minutes more. The easiest way to check for doneness is to insert a small knife near the dorsal line on the top side of the fish and prize apart the flesh until you can see the backbone; if the flesh is still pink and adhering tenaciously to the bone, put back in the oven, having moistened it with a little more olive oil. If the skin of the fish has not browned and crisped then flash under your overhead grill for a minute or so. The bottom side of the fish will have cooked more quickly due to its contact with the potatoes but will remain moist due to trapped steam.
Serve in the roasting dish and dissect it yourself for your guests, serving the potatoes alongside. Lemon wedges are essential, as is, perhaps, a little top-quality oil to drizzle on the fish.
© 1996 Alastair Little. All rights reserved.