Sicilians Know Swordfish!

involtini-di-pesce-spada-sicily-2 The popularity of swordfish in Sicily goes back to the ancient Greeks when they established colonies on the island.  But this preparation has four of the hallmarks of cucina arabo-sicula, the folkloric cuisine believed to be vestigial of Arab influence from the Arab-Sicilian era of the ninth to twelfth centuries: the use of citrus, grilled skewers, stuffed food, and the pine nut-raisin combination.  Swordfish are caught mostly in the Strait of Messina, the Malta Channel, and the Sicilian Channel, and most Sicilian swordfish recipes come from the province of Messina.   The first variation is typical of the monzù, the French-influenced master chefs who served the nineteenth-century Sicilian aristocracy, while the second variation is a popular one in Calabria, the toe of the Italian “boot.”  This recipe is adapted from J. C. Grasso’s wonderful book The Best of Southern Italian Cooking published in 1984.  Buy the swordfish in one piece, freeze slightly then cut into 12 slices.


Here are two variations on the recipe below that you can try too: Variation 1: Replace step 2 with the following: In a sauté pan, heat 1/4 cup olive oil over medium-high heat.  Add 1 pound finely chopped boneless, skinless, swordfish steak and 1 cup finely chopped onion and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes.  Drizzle in 6 tablespoons brandy and salt to taste.  When the brandy has evaporated, remove the filling to a mixing bowl and stir in 6 tablespoons fresh bread crumbs.  Divide the filling among the swordfish slices.  Lay one of 12 slices of mozzarella (about 1 pound) on each swordfish slice.  Divide 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh basil and 1 teaspoon fresh or dried thyme among the slices and pepper them all to taste.  Roll up the slices, folding in the edges and squeezing the roll-ups in your hands.  Secure any openings with toothpicks.  Dip the roll-ups in olive oil.  Omit step 3 and the bay leaf and onion garnishes and then grill.

Involtini di Pesce Spada
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
Recipe type: Grilled Seafood
Cuisine: Sicilian
Serves: 6 to 8
  • For the swordfish
  • One 2¾-pound piece swordfish, partially frozen and cut into twelve ¼-inch-thick slices
  • For the filling
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1¾ cups fresh bread crumbs
  • 2 salted anchovy fillets, rinsed and chopped
  • 1 large garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons pine nuts
  • 1 tablespoon golden raisins or currants
  • 2 tablespoons freshly grated pecorino cheese
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon fresh orange juice
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • For the coating
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup dry bread crumbs
  • 2 tablespoons freshly grated caciocavallo or pecorino cheese
  • ½ teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 garlic clove, very finely chopped
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • For the grill garnish
  • 30 bay leaves, soaked in tepid water for 30 minutes
  • 3 large onions, quartered and separated
  • Twelve 10-inch wooden skewers
  • Lemon wedges
  1. Flatten the swordfish slices further between 2 pieces of wax paper, pounding with the side of a mallet or heavy cleaver very gently so you don’t break through the flesh. Each slice should be about 5½ x 3½ inches.
  2. Prepare the filling. In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat then cook, stirring, onion until translucent, about 7 minutes. In a bowl, combine the cooked onion with the bread crumbs, anchovies, garlic, pine nuts, raisins or currants, pecorino, lemon juice, orange juice, and egg. Mix well and season with salt and pepper. Divide the filling among the swordfish slices and roll up, folding in the edges and squeezing the roll-ups in your hands. Secure any opening with toothpicks. Dip the roll-ups in olive oil.
  3. Prepare the coating. In a bowl, stir the beaten egg and the 2 tablespoons olive oil together and set aside. Combine the bread crumbs, caciocavallo or pecorino, oregano, parsley, garlic, and salt and pepper. Dredge the swordfish rolls in the egg mixture and then roll in the bread crumb mixture to coat lightly. Set aside.
  4. Prepare a hot charcoal fire to one side of the firebox or preheat a gas grill on high for 15 minutes.
  5. Double skewer all the ingredients: hold 2 skewers parallel to each other about ½ inch apart between your thumb and forefinger. Slide the roll-ups onto the skewers, interspersed with bay leaves and onion sections, putting 2 roll-ups on each set of skewers and drizzle with olive oil. Place the skewers on the grill and cook for about 6 minutes on each side. Serve with lemon wedges.

Variation 2: Replace step 2 with the following: Mix 1 3/4 cups fresh bread crumbs; 2 tablespoons dried oregano; 4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped; 1/4 cup capers; 1/4 cup freshly grated pecorino cheese; 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley; and 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice.  Salt the swordfish slices and dip them in olive oil.  Divide the stuffing among the swordfish slices.  Roll up the slices, folding in the edges and squeezing the roll-ups in your hands.  Secure any openings with toothpicks.  Omit step 3 and the bay leaf and onion garnishes.

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