IT'S a sweet, languid summer evening on the Amalfi Coast of Italy. A waiter walks onto the veranda carrying a vial of red-amber liquid. At your table, he dips a twig of dried oregano into it and applies a few drops to your dish. Instantly it turns into something memorably appetizing.
The magic fluid is colatura di alici, a traditional flavoring made in two local fishing villages: Cetara, six miles west of Salerno, and Pisciotta, about 60 miles south.
To call colatura a cousin of Vietnamese nuoc mam scarcely does it justice. It's the free-run juice of salted anchovies, so it's richer and more aromatic than the typical southeast Asian fish sauce, which is brine in which fish (or fish parts) have been pickled. At first, colatura smells incredibly fishy, but a few minutes later it may strike you as meaty or winy instead. It's overflowing with the protein-type savor the Japanese call umami.
Colatura is a rare ingredient, used sparingly; "It's like adding truffle oil," says Piero Selvaggi of Valentino Restaurant in Santa Monica. Currently no Los Angeles market is selling it, nor are any of our local Italian restaurants featuring it.
But it is available online. This is one chance for the home cook to get out ahead of the pros.
The ancient Romans had a fish sauce called garum, and many people speculate that colatura may be descended from garum. Others connect it with the Cistercian monks of San Pietro di Amalfi, who were salting anchovies centuries ago.
Either explanation could be right. The fact is, colatura arises naturally from the process of salting anchovies Cetara-style. When the fish are caught in summer, the Cetaresi throw them in chestnut wood barrels, alternating layers with handfuls of salt. Then the fish are pressed down by a wooden lid weighted with rocks.
By December, the anchovies have produced a bit of fragrant amber juice. A tiny hole is poked in the bottom of the barrel and a bowl collects the colatura that drips through ("colatura" means dripping or filtration).
UNTIL the 20th century, this was exclusively a homemade product. Families would exchange bottles of their own colatura at Christmas, when it was a prominent flavoring at the meatless Christmas Eve dinner. These days, four companies make it commercially in Cetara and nearby Pellezzano. (Pisciotta's version of colatura, made in terracotta urns instead of barrels, is not available outside its locality.)
"You can use colatura anywhere you'd use salt," says Naples-born Enzo Battarra of Enzo & Angela in West Los Angeles. "Just a hint," warns Carla Capalbo, author of "The Food and Wine Guide to Naples and Campania" (Pallas Athene, London, 2006), "or it becomes unbearable."
The most common thing to do, though, is to make a salsetta by mixing a few tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil with a clove or two of crushed garlic and a teaspoon or so of colatura. This "little sauce" most often goes on spaghetti, linguine or vermicelli (the Amalfi Coast is renowned for its artisanal pasta), but it is also used with fish.
"We serve spaghetti with colatura," says Alberto Citterio, chef at Le Sirenuse in Positano. "It's like spaghetti all' olio with more flavor. And we serve it on carpaccio di pesce -- we slice raw fish thin and mix it with the colatura and olive oil."
The sauce can also go on any sort of vegetable, such as potatoes, carrots, zucchini or rapini. Escarole is a particular favorite for the salsetta treatment.
You can doctor this sauce with minced parsley or a little crushed red pepper. At Chez Black in Positano, they like to throw in some cherry tomatoes. But one thing no colatura-based sauce ever needs is salt; colatura is salty by nature.
Colatura also has an affinity with olives and walnuts. Ristorante La Caravella in Amalfi makes a pasta sauce consisting of olives, capers and walnuts pureed with garlic, olive oil and colatura.
Playing with a classic
SOME chefs take it in still other directions. According to Capalbo, La Torre del Saracino in Seiano serves swordfish ravioli in a sauce of sun-dried tomatoes and oregano with colatura and Ristorante San Pietro in Cetara makes a soup of farro and fresh anchovies, also flavored with oregano and colatura. (So add oregano to the list of ingredients that go well with colatura.)
Antonio DiPino, chef at La Caravella, makes a startling combination: "We use colatura sauce for a special dish of anchovies. Inside one fresh anchovy, we put a slice of provola; it's like smoked mozzarella. Then we fry it simply and [add] colatura."
Fish sauce and cheese? Why not? Cheese has been called milk's leap toward immortality; colatura is the anchovy's.
Braised escarole with colatura sauce
Total time: 15 minutes