Acqua Pazza – Italian Poached Fish

Pesce all’ Acqua Pazza - Italian poached fish. 

The literal translation of this Italian dish is “fish in crazy water”.  While some have used the name as a license to add all sorts of things to it, it’s actually supposed to be a simple dish based on three core ingredients: wine, tomato and herbs. 

As always there are various accounts of the origins and meaning of the dish name. No matter the truth, one thing that’s clear is it’s a dish that showcases the spirit of Italian cooking: taking a few simple ingredients and turning it into something magical. The ' Crazy Water is a classic method for cooking stewed fish. What distinguishes Acqua pazza is the simplicity with which the fish is cooked, accompanied with Mediterranean aromatic herbs such as garlic, oregano, as well as the basic tomatoes, salt and oil: at the end of cooking, a sprinkling of parsley must be added.  The fish most used in this preparation are  Perch, Pezzogna, Sea Bream, San Pietro, or the Sea Bass. This cooking method, in addition to enhancing the white meat of different types of fish with taste, is a tasty and absolutely low-calorie method, a worthy representative of the Mediterranean diet.


Chardonnay (or other white wine) – Using a bolder white wine is an excellent option here to pack complexity and depth of flavor into this simple dish. Unless you can’t consume alcohol, I really urge you not to skip the wine. Best non-alcoholic sub: chicken or fish stock (low sodium); Fennel and onion – The sauce flavor base. Fennel is an Italian favorite which adds fabulous sweet flavor into the sauce. Don’t skip the fennel even if you’re not a huge fan; the aniseed flavor is very mild in the finished dish; Chilli and garlic – Excellent friends of tomato and wine. We’re using a big red chilli here – and only half at that – which means the spiciness is virtually non-existent. It’s more about adding a really subtle background warmth. Feel free to add more! Tomato – Both red and yellow cherry tomatoes here, simmered in the sauce until they break down to form part of the sauce. A fabulous splash of summer color! Basil and parsley – That moment they’re sprinkled into the hot sauce and the fresh herby flavor hits you, you know you’re in for something special!

Garlic Crostini

And here’s what you need for the garlic crostini. Trust me when I say that you do not want to skip the crostini!!


The fish is half steamed, half poached on the chunky sauce. This means we get the best of both worlds: ultra moistness from gentle steaming, and a magical exchange of flavor between fish and sauce. Sauté fennel and onion first, adding garlic and chili, then tomato; Reduce wine by half, cooking out the alcohol and leaving behind all the flavor!

Simmer sauce – Add water then simmer to reduce by about half. Don’t bother tasting at this stage, it’s not exciting yet;

Place fish on top of the sauce. Because it’s a chunky style sauce, it will sit mostly above the liquid level. Then place a lid on – any lid is fine (I use a pot lid just larger than my skillet). Pending a lid, cover with a baking tray or foil instead;

Poach until fish is just cooked. This takes around 6 minutes for the 180g/6oz thick snapper fillets I used, or check until the internal temperature is 50°C/122°F. Using this method of cooking is excellent for extracting the most flavor out of a simple dish. The juices from the fish mixes into the sauce – the purest form of fish stock ever – and the fish absorbs the flavor of the sauce; and Herbs – Remove fish, then finally stir herbs into the sauce. Now you can taste the sauce!!!

Plating Up:

And here’s how to assemble the finished dish: Place 2 slices of crostini in a shallow bowl; Spoon some sauce over the crostini; Top with fish; and Spoon remaining sauce around fish. Garnish with fresh basil and drizzle with olive oil.

This needs to be served immediately because the idea here is that the crostini under the fish is still crunchy, yet is soaked with sauce. Digging in with your hands at some point is not optional!


Another nice thing about Acqua Pazza is that it’s a complete meal. Protein, starch and a nice amount of veg are all here, so there’s no need to fuss with a side salad here. It’s also got a nice flow to it, one of those recipes where you get things started on the stove as you can continue preparing the other ingredients. Don’t let the simplicity of the dish fool you. This is a poached fish dish that packs seriously good flavor.

Opinions differ on the origins of Acqua pazza  , given the antiquity of the recipe. The dispute over the authorship of the method is ... lost on the high seas. It is in fact a question of the sea, or rather between fishermen of the Tyrrhenian Sea, precisely. In fact, it seems that the Acqua pazza was invented by the fishermen of the island of Ponza, but obviously the question becomes stormy when the Neapolitan fishermen of Capo Miseno and the island of Capri also claim the paternity. What is certain is that the fishermen used sea water in cooking, perhaps accompanied with a little wine, to give that touch of flavor to freshly caught fish, saving on salt.


A very interesting hypothesis is that supported by  Enrico Durazzo, who attributes the paternity of cooking fish to Acqua pazza to Neapolitan fishermen. It even makes the birth of the Aqua pazza cooking method coincide with a very particular historical moment for the Italian state, i.e. when the hateful salt tax was introduced at the end of the nineteenth century, which at the time was a good that fell under the monopoly of State. According to Durazzo, to overcome the problem of the cost of cooking salt, sea water was introduced to Naples to cook fish.

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