AVILA BEACH — Santa Monica's Ocean Ave Seafood won the first cioppino contest staged in this seafaring town, indicating that what started as a San Francisco specialty may be more at home in the Southland.
Another Southern California restaurant, John Dominis of Newport Beach, came in third, while second place went to the Spyglass Inn of Shell Beach.
Cioppino is a robust fisherman's stew based on the day's catch rather than any set formula. Tomatoes, olive oil, herbs and wine are standard ingredients, and shellfish usually predominate. Introduced decades ago by Italians and Portuguese working off the northern coast, cioppino has become linked to Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco.
Because no restaurant from that tourist attraction took part in the contest (two canceled), judges could not determine whether San Francisco had lost its culinary grip.
The competition took place on neutral terrain, about midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The site was the Olde Port Inn on the pier at Port San Luis. However, restaurant manager Leonard Cohen was not out to start a North-South rivalry. "I wanted everybody to win," Cohen said.
Entries were judged for aroma, flavor, creativity, presentation and overall quality. Ocean Ave Seafood scored high in still another area, thoughtfulness. Cioppino is messy to eat, and sticky-fingered judges were delighted by the entry's accompaniments: finger bowls and wet towels topped with lemon slices.
Kelly Mullarney, Ocean Ave chef, made the dish spicy with black pepper and crushed hot red peppers. But the mellow broth was also amply seasoned with fresh herbs, porcini mushrooms, tomatoes and aromatic vegetables such as fennel root. Large white individual serving bowls were piled high with Dungeness crab, clams, large spot prawns and swordfish substituting for albacore, which the restaurant had not been able to obtain.
For dunking, Mullarney provided sourdough bread--not the celebrated San Francisco variety but a hometown product from the Pioneer Boulangerie in Santa Monica. And for drinking, he presented a bottle of Sanford Pinot Noir 1986, the same wine that flavored the sauce. "I thought it married well with the tomatoes," Mullarney said.
The wine was a savvy choice because the contest was accompanied by a tasting of Central Coast Pinot Noirs. Cohen, a wine enthusiast, considers Pinot Noir the ideal accompaniment to cioppino and had dubbed the event a "Cio-Pinot" cookoff.
What is poured into the pot can vary, however. "White wine gives leaner, crisper flavor," said Cohen, who sometimes adds both white and red wines and uses all Pinot Noir only for special occasions.
Matt Murphy, chef of the second place Spyglass Inn, seasoned his cioppino with dry vermouth while Robert Reash Jr. of John Dominis used a dry white wine. Chardonnay went into a full-bodied Sicilian-style cioppino prepared by Stephanie Ciambra-Ball of Genovese's Italian Restaurant in Grover City. Ed Diaz of the Yankee Clipper restaurant in Ventura added Chenin Blanc for sweetness. And Joe Zoellin of Flaherty's in Carmel finished off his stew with a splash of Port, apparent only in the first whiff when the lid of the pot was lifted.
From its start as a simple seaman's supper, cioppino has advanced to a luxury dish with, occasionally, some surprising ingredients. The Spyglass Inn prize winner, presented in an elaborately carved, footed silver tureen, was packed with enormous prawns, lobster, scallops with the roe attached, cockles, clams and albacore. The John Dominis entry, served in gleaming copper-and-brass casseroles, also contained a wide range of costly seafood and combined such contemporary California seasonings as cilantro and jalapeno chile with saffron, which is a classic component of French bouillabaisse.
Ernest A. Wally of Chef Wally's Bistro in San Diego produced what may be the state's only cioppino containing shark fins. Wally also added barquetta bass cheeks, lobster, rock crab claws, halibut, swordfish, sculpin and skate wings, all fresh from the San Diego area. Although the entry did not place in the top three, it boasted one of the most well-balanced broths.
Vienna-born Wally, who has worked in Australia and Hong Kong, startled the judges by adding a side dish of highly seasoned, Indian-style tomato chutney. The chutney was meant to go with thin slices of firm bread, not the cioppino.
Ciambra-Ball topped Genovese's cioppino with basil sprigs and accompanied it with sourdough bread lushly seasoned with Sicilian olive oil, butter, garlic, Parmesan cheese and Italian parsley. As if that weren't enough, she added little pots of intensely flavored pesto. Although her cioppino came in fourth, Ciambra-Ball won first place for creativity.