Costa di Mare, Wynn’s tribute to coastal Italy, has intensified its long-term focus on delivering fish that are hard to come by in the United States.
From the seas around the Tuscan Archipelago—between the islands of Giglio to Capraia—swims the rather fierce-looking Tuscan Sea Palamita, a relative of the tuna and mackerel, instantly recognizable for its large mouth and sharp teeth and, at Costa di Mare, its silky mouthfeel—prepared raw as carpaccio of palamita (or bonito, as it’s also known), with artichokes and a slick of gremolata. Or slowly poached in olive oil to create a delicate tonnato sauce for Chef Mark LoRusso’s beef tartare.
“Think of it as a sort of surf and turf preparation,” winks LoRusso, who, since taking the helm of Costa di Mare, has intensified the restaurant’s long-term focus on delivering fish that are hard to come by in the United States, but also on offering dishes that heavily depend on the seasonal availability of fish—and even the resourcefulness of Wynn’s dedicated seafood dealer in Milan. “Recently,” LoRusso says, “our purveyor found a Castagna, which is super rare—one of the rarest fish we’ve ever had. It comes from the western coast of Italy, has a big head and a long body, and weighed four kilos [8.8 lbs].” The server was so excited about the fish, which he knew was a rare commodity, that he presented it to a table of 14, which ordered it roasted whole for the table. “It took an hour and a half to roast!” LoRusso laughs. New, too, is a focus on crudo, which you’ll find both in preparations of the palamita and beef, but also in a spectacular “crudo misti,” or a mixed crudo tasting that will usually include cuttlefish “cappellini,” prawns, Sicilian amberjack, and prizes procured by Costa’s purveyor that lend themselves to a raw preparation. On a lengthy research trip to Italy to develop the new menu, LoRusso says, “Crudo was always on the table.”
The magic for LoRusso, Costa di Mare’s general manager Elion Prodani, and the servers, many of whom grew up in Italy and present the evening’s fish to each table via a cart, is, as Prodani says, “We get to transport our guests to Italy each night.” He recalls a night when two men came in for dinner, “and when we told them we had moleche, they nearly lost their marbles, because they couldn’t even find them at home in Venice.” Those moleche, or soft shelled crabs, are a different species than those in the U.S., specific to Venice, and available only twice a year—in the fall and spring.
“We’ve always gotten species that are hard to come by,” LoRusso explains, “but with our focus on seasonality, we’re bringing in really rare things. For instance, there’s the Cicala di Mare, this big, flat, prehistoric lobster whose flesh is even more refined than a lobster. They react to pollution, so they live in only pristine waters. The Italian government restricts their catch to a 2 ½ month season. So July hits, and they’re done.” Should you be lucky enough to visit Costa di Mare in their season, you’ll find them grilled whole over charcoal or prepared over pasta with tomato and garlic.
Look also for the Pannocchia, the sweetest of all sea crustaceans, which is sometimes known as the Mantis shrimp for its resemblance to both praying mantis and shrimp. Found in the high Adriatic, they’re a popular first course, simply grilled and served with lemon and parsley. “The whole concept of our menu is line caught fish, no nets, and completely sustainable,” LoRusso says. “And it’s paramount to us that we showcase just how beautiful and fresh these products are.”
To that effect, you’ll find Mormora (striped sea bream), a lesser known fish than sea bass or dorade, with a moist flesh that, when roasted whole simply with olive oil and white wine, is the essence of rustic simplicity. Don’t miss Centrolofo, or imperial blackfish, which thrives in the Med and plays a starring role in Costa’s signature frittura di paranza Mediterraneaa spectacular antipasto of fried Mediterranean fish, crispy artichoke and pickled lemon—and an instant ticket to Naples for nostalgic palates. If your loyalties lie with Sicily, look for the Costardelle, a bluefish traditional to Messina and usually served fried. The delicate Fragolino (roughly translated to “little strawberry”), a popular fish with a pink luster, stars in a Cacciucco alla Livornese, a fishermen’s stew slowly cooked with tomatoes, garlic, and white wine.
For LoRusso, whose arrival at Costa di Mare marks a return to his roots in seafood restaurants, and for Prodani and the servers, each of the three weekly shipments of 100 kilos (220 lbs) holds some excitement, even though most of Costa’s staff has worked there for nearly a decade. “Even in Italy,” Prodani explains, “you can’t get variety like this. We have the relationship with all these fishermen that allows us to get the moleche and Mediterranean sole from Venice, the snappers from down south, the red shrimp and orate from Napoli… all in one box. In Italy, 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.” And if the kitchen runs out of an item? “I like when we run out of a couple of things each night,” LoRusso says. Where lobsters and langoustines are kept live in tanks (the live langoustines at Costa di Mare are famous) and shipments come in three times each week, keeping a smaller inventory ensures Costa’s guests are getting the freshest fish possible.
“In Italy, 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.” —Elion Prodani
As LoRusso evolves the menu to include more fresh pastas, delicate seasonal items like zucchini blossoms, and of course these new species of fish and shellfish, every new shipment and seasonal treasure is the opportunity for discovery—both for his chefs and for the guests. “There are times when we get an email from our purveyor that he’s able to get something we’ve never even heard of,” LoRusso says. “Sometimes waiters remember how they ate it while they were growing up, or how it was prepared during their travels, but the goal is always to best showcase this incredible bounty.”