Meals at Costa di Mare are inspired by seasonal seafood from the waters of the Mediterranean. Catch them before they’re gone.
Handmade chitarra pasta with spider crab, tomato, lemon, and a seasonal star: sea urchin.
For only a few days in October and November, then again in April and May, the the molecanti (or soft-shell crab fishermen) of Venice venture into the lagoons to find the tiny crabs—moleche—that are just about to molt. There is a window of only up to six hours between the time the crustaceans shed their tough carapace and their new shell hardens when they can be eaten in their entirety. This lightning-fast process requires quickly identifying the crabs that haven’t yet molted, harvesting them, shipping them, and storing them in seawater tanks until the moment they transform.
Of the two brief seasons when they can be found, fall is when they’re rarest: Both male and female moleche molt in the spring, but only males slough off their shells in the fall. The best way to prepare them, of course, is simply— lightly dusted in flour, flash-fried, and served with a wedge of lemon. They’re sweet, salty, and tiny (about half the size of a soft-shell Maryland crab), and they taste precisely like a late-season dinner in Venice.
The race to procure these tiny delicacies in many ways defines the kitchen of chef Mark LoRusso at Costa di Mare, who has taken a restaurant already well-known for the rarity of its seafood (gourmands make pilgrimages here just for the live langoustines) and introduced species that are here and gone in the blink of a short season. “We’ve always gotten species that are really hard to come by,” LoRusso says, “but with our focus on seasonality, we’re bringing in really rare things.”
Chef Mark LoRusso.
And while the menu is a good indication of what is available on any night, it’s what’s off the menu that can be truly special. Since taking the helm of the restaurant, LoRusso has often allowed the seasons—and Wynn’s resourceful, dedicated seafood dealer in Milan—to dictate what will be compiled in single shipments from the Ligurian, Ionian, Tyrrhenian, and Adriatic seas.
“Tomorrow night after service, we’ll order the fish,” the chef explains, sitting at a table in the late afternoon before the dinner hour, overlooking Costa di Mare’s serene private lagoon. “He’ll send a couple of kilos of things we’ve never seen before—and then the fun begins,” he adds with a smile. “We’ll grill it; we’ll see if we can use it as crudo. We know it’s coming in about two days before, and he’ll tell us where it’s from, so we’ll begin researching. Some of our waiters will have had something as children in Italy, and they get excited to see it.”
In fact, most of the waiters have worked at the restaurant for the 10 years it has been open, presenting the night’s catch to guests in an elaborate tableside cart service whose variety almost always dictates the meal. For general manager Elion Prodani and his staff of predominantly Italian waiters, the two or three weekly shipments of 100 kilos (220 pounds) of seafood still seem wildly abundant. “In Italy, people have their local markets,” he says, recalling a couple who came into the restaurant seeking to duplicate a dining experience from their honeymoon in Venice. “They showed us the exact wine and pictures of the fish they had. But it was so poor compared to what we have.”
Costa di Mare’s scampi Siciliani (Sicilian langoustines).
Long-cultivated relationships with fishermen bring those moleche and Mediterranean sole from Venice, snapper from the south, and red shrimp and orate from Naples. “If you were in Puglia and wanted something from the south, you’d wait longer than we do, it would likely come frozen, and you’d have to pay a lot of money to get it,” Prodani says. Another hallmark of LoRusso’s menu is that it has been gently pared down: Fewer items allow him to focus on the seafood and on the superbly fresh pastas he has introduced.
Right now, for instance, is prime time for sea urchin in Sicily, where they’re harvested from the middle of November to April. They play a starring role in his maccheroni alla chitarra con ricci di mare. LoRusso’s own Abruzzese-style chitarra pasta (long strands of spaghetti that are square rather than round) is the perfect vehicle for a substantial sauce—here with crab, tomato, and lemon, topped with briny and complex sea urchin, as light and creamy as foam. Although sea scallops are available year-round, their season runs from October through March. LoRusso sautées them, placing them on fennel puree, and scatters them with tangy blood orange supremes, pistachio, and fennel.
“The whole concept of our menu is line-caught fish, no nets, and completely sustainable,” he says. And if the kitchen runs out of something, that’s a mark of success: “I think it’s okay to run out sometimes. Our menu has become more well-rounded, more seasonal. If it were all the same, the menu wouldn’t always be evolving as it is.” Come spring and summer, you’ll find mormora (striped sea bream), roasted whole with olive oil and white wine, and centrolofo (imperial blackfish) in frittura di paranza Mediterranea—fried Mediterranean fish, crispy artichoke, and pickled lemon—which instantly transports guests to a seaside summer feast in Naples.
A dramatic sculpture in Costa di Mare’s dining room depicts a swirling school of gilded fish, inspired by the work of Dominic and Frances Bromley of Scabetti.
Summer also delivers (with some luck) cicala di mare, a large, flat lobster whose flesh is even more clean-tasting and elegant than that of common lobster. Highly sensitive to pollution, these prehistoric-looking crustaceans live only in pristine waters and their harvest is tightly restricted by the Italian government to a two-and-a-half-month season that ends in July. For now, though, focus on the bounty of winter—that luxurious urchin, the calamaretti (tiny calamari), and Costa di Mare’s legendary live langoustine, perfectly sweet and salty, its source so zealously guarded that its boxes are thrown away only after all identifying tags have been stripped and destroyed.
The source delivers only to a dozen restaurants in the world, and the langoustines come in four sizes, from large to “extra jumbo.” LoRusso fishes them out of the tank in the kitchen, and simply splits and grills them. “Our goal is to transport you to Italy,” the chef says. So do as the Italians wish they could and savor the winter catch from the entire country. ’Tis the season!