A Redding chef and restaurant owner wants to share a distinctly San Francisco alternative to traditional holiday turkey and ham dinners.
Chef Cal DeMercurio grew up cooking and laughing with his “loud Italian family,” he said.
"We have big family gatherings during the holidays, with lots of birthdays and anniversaries in between Thanksgiving… and New Year’s."
Preparing the food was as important a social occasion as sitting down to eat it. And at least once each year, the family declares a cioppino day.
The inspiration for DeMercurio's recipe for this bold and savory seafood dish comes straight from his father. Joe DeMercurio's Italian-American ancestors were commercial fishermen in San Francisco, he said.
"At the end of the day, when all the fishermen came in to dock at the wharf, they" traded some of their catch and pooled "it together for dinner. Being Italian, they would add a little spicy tomato sauce and some wine. The clams and shrimp and crab would still all be in their shells, adding to the flavor of the dish as it simmered," DeMercurio said.
The result was a wonderful stew "with the freshest catch imaginable," he said. "The fishermen would dig in while recounting the folklore of the day.”
Preparing the stew also includes family traditions. In their case, it's “eating clam dip and drinking Grasshoppers” cocktails, DeMercurio said.
Hunting, candy played a big part in DeMercurio's upbringing
DeMercurio grew up in Redding, cooking whatever his family hunted: Rabbit, squirrel, elk, deer, rattlesnake.
“In my family you either killed things or cooked them. I was the worst shot," he said.
So, by age 9, he decided he preferred being in the kitchen with mom and grandma over the outdoors, he said.
He also loved making candy for other children, DeMercurio said. At Halloween, he'd hand out homemade peanut brittle, popcorn balls, candied apples and caramels.
Time spent in his family’s kitchen turned DeMercurio to the culinary arts after he graduated from Central Valley High School in 1981.
He apprenticed at Red Lion hotels in Redding and Bakersfield and became a certified executive chef in 1986, he said.
What followed were new business launches and partnerships: Bridge Bay, DeMercurio’s Restaurant, Pesce Pasta and Rivers Restaurant in the old Hatchcover Restaurant building.
Being a restaurateur is also a family tradition, he said.
As of 2023, Cheesecakes Unlimited is owned by his son, Joshua, and Joshua's wife April, he said. Cheescakes Unlimited is in the same location that once housed Cal DeMercurio's Old School Restaurant: The former Pine Street School building in downtown Redding
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Chef DeMercurio's cioppino recipe
Servings: Two to four
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon fresh garlic, minced
1 medium yellow onion, medium diced
1 cup carrots, large diced
2 ribs celery, large diced
2 teaspoon Italian seasoning, dried
1 tablespoon fresh, chopped parsley
4 fresh sprigs thyme
3 fresh bay leaves
1 cup red wine. Use whichever red wine you’re serving with your meal. Suggestions: Robust red wine such as Zinfandel or Cabernet Sauvignon, or an Old Vine varietal
1, 29-ounce can tomato sauce
1, 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
2-3 pinches kosher salt, to taste
3-6 grinds black pepper, fresh cracked, to taste
2, 6-ounce lobster tails, split, shell-on
8 whole shrimp scampi, deveined, shell-on
4 to 6 scallops
8 manila clams
8 ounces firm fin fish – cod, salmon, halibut or swordfish – cut into one-inch cubes
1 whole Dungeness crab, cracked, cleaned, split
8 ounces of clam juice (optional)
In a large heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil and butter until medium hot. Add garlic, onion, carrots, celery and herbs. Stir often with a wooden spoon and cook until vegetables just begin to soften and color; about 10 minutes. Add a few tablespoons of water as needed to help prevent sticking and burning. Add wine to deglaze, scraping up any bits that have stuck to the bottom of the pot.
Add diced tomatoes, tomato sauce and sugar; heat and simmer for 15 minutes, uncovered. Add lobster and simmer uncovered for another 6 to 7 minutes. Finally, add clams, fin fish and crab. Heat for an additional 5 minutes.
Divide the seafood and sauce between two to four large bowls, with the lobster and shrimp scampi placed on top. Garnish with fresh chopped parsley on top. Serve with a side of extra-sourdough bread for dipping in sauce, along with bibs, spoons, claw crackers and a shell discard bowl.
Chef's tip: This is a hands-on meal. Have lots of napkins at-the-ready too. A small bowl of warm water with a splash of lemon juice is also helpful for rinsing fingers occasionally.
Jessica Skropanic is a features reporter for the Record Searchlight/USA Today Network. She covers science, arts, social issues and news stories. Follow her on Twitter @RS_JSkropanic and on Facebook. Join Jessica in the Get Out! Nor Cal recreation Facebook group. To support and sustain this work, please subscribe today. Thank you.
This article originally appeared on Redding Record Searchlight: A bold Christmas turkey alternative from San Francisco: Cioppino