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Baked Whole Fish with Sliced Potatoes (Pesce al Forno con le Patate)

The Romans feel, quite reasonably, that if you have a nice fresh fish, you should honor it with a simple preparation and not make it look or taste like anything else. The absence of sauces and condiments takes a little getting used to, but the reward is the subtle flavor and texture of the fish. This recipe is basic but leaves plenty of room for variation. Instead of onions and parsley, try garlic and rosemary or other herbs, or cherry or grape tomatoes and a bit of marjoram. Instead of a whole fish, use fillets. In Rome, this recipe is often made with orata (gilthead bream), spigola (sea bass) or dentice (dentex).

Ingredients:

  • About 2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil 
  • 1 1/2 lb. russet potatoes, peeled and sliced crosswise 1/8 inch thick  
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper, preferably white, to taste 
  • 1 or 2 whole fish, such as sea bass, turbot, cod or scrod, 2 1/2 to 3 lb. total, cleaned with head and tail intact 
  • 1 fresh flat-leaf parsley sprig 
  • 4 lemon slices (optional) 
  • 4 white or yellow onions, sliced 
  • Finest extra-virgin olive oil for serving 

Directions:

Preheat an oven to 450°F. Select a shallow baking dish as long as the fish (the fish can be laid diagonally) and brush the dish with some of the olive oil.

Spread the sliced potatoes in the bottom of the prepared baking dish, season them with salt and drizzle with a little more of the olive oil. Bake the potatoes, turning them over once halfway through, until they start to brown, about 45 minutes. Check occasionally to make sure they are not sticking to the dish.

Meanwhile, rinse the fish inside and out and pat dry with paper towels. Place the parsley and lemon slices in the cavity, and season with salt and pepper.

When the potatoes have started to brown, remove the baking dish from the oven and reduce the temperature to 250°F. Using a spatula, move the potatoes to either side of the dish to make room for the fish. Intersperse the onion slices among the potatoes and set the fish in the dish. Drizzle more olive oil over everything. Bake until the fish is opaque throughout when tested with a fork, about 1 hour for 1 large fish and 30 to 45 minutes for 2 smaller fish.

Transfer the fish and vegetables to a platter. Fillet the fish and divide evenly among warmed plates. Accompany each serving with some of the potatoes and onions. Offer the head(s) to any connoisseurs at your table who wish to pick at the delicate meat. Pass the olive oil bottle at the table. Serves 4.


Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Foods of the World Series, Rome, by Maureen B. Fant (Oxmoor House, 2005).