“Smelts” Fritti alla Moda delle Sarde

Fried Butterflied Smelts

One of the fish varieties I find it hard to do without when I am in America is fresh sardines. (The ones sold as such are actually a variety of small, strong-tasting herring.) Often, in Italy, I fry sardines, and they are so irresistible that I rarely manage to get them out of the kitchen. When I prepare them, family and friends crowd around me in the kitchen; by the time they have finished “tasting,” there is nothing left to bring to the table.

The closest I could come in looking for an equivalent was smelts. The taste is very much leaner, but the size and textural quality is not too distant from that of sardines, so that they fry to very nearly the same captivating crispness. Frying them is easy and fast. What takes a little time, until you acquire the knack, is boning and butterflying them, a necessary procedure described in detail below.


  • 20 smelts, about 10 to 12 inches long
  • Vegetable oil for frying
  • 1 cup flour, spread on a plate
  • Salt
  • Lemon wedges


  1. Cut off and discard the heads of the smelts. With a scissor cut the belly open from the head end to the tail. With your fingers scoop out the intestines and all other loose matter. Beginning at the tail end of the fish, slip your thumbnail under the bone and slide it toward the head end, loosening the bone from the flesh. Repeat the procedure under the other side of the bone. The central bone together with the belly bones should now be completely detached from the flesh and attached only to the tail. Snap it loose from the tail and discard it. The bone-free fish can now be opened flat.
  2. When you have boned and butterflied all the fish, rinse them thoroughly under cold running water and dry well with paper towels.
  3. Pour enough vegetable oil in a frying pan to come ½ to ¾ inch up the side of the pan. Turn on the heat to high.
  4. When the oil is hot, dredge each fish, one by one, in the flour, holding it by the tail. Shake it vigorously to throw off all excess flour. Slip it into the pan skin side up. Do not put in any more fish than the pan can accommodate without crowding.
  5. Fry the fish until 1 side becomes colored a light nut brown, which takes less than 1 minute, then turn them and fry them on the other side for about 40 to 60 seconds. Using a slotted spoon or spatula, transfer them to drain on paper towels over a platter or, even better, over a cooling grill set on a tray. Repeat the procedure until all the smelts are done. Sprinkle with salt and serve at once with lemon wedges on the side.