Christmastime in Venice with Cuttlefish in Its Ink

The cooking of cuttlefish in its own ink is a method that goes back at least to the fourteenth century, as we know from an early cookery manuscript fragment from about 1300 (Frammento, Biblioteca Universitaria della Università di Bologna, MS 158, ffº 86r – 91v) where it is cooked with leeks, garlic, and spices to “look like mushroom,” which you will recognize when you make this recipe.*

The slender squid is a graceful creature when swimming, while the cuttlefish is a stockier-looking cephalopod with thicker meat.  Some people have suggested that the timid nature of the cuttlefish accounts for its excellent taste because it is caught relatively motionless and has not had a chance to emit any chemicals associated with fright and flight.  Cuttlefish were caught in nets without effort, keeping its ink, and probably it was these fishermen of early Venice who began to use the ink.  Choose the smallest cuttlefish available.

The same preparation is made in Chioggia, at the southern end of the Venetian lagoon, without garlic.   Cuttlefish is usually available around the Christmas season in the United States, especially in ethnic neighborhoods.  The recipe can be made with squid, but it just isn’t the same, not to mention how difficult it is to get a squid ink sack.  However, there is an even easier solution and that is to buy cuttlefish ink sachets available via Amazon or simplying by Googlinf for sources. Serve with hot polenta (page 000).

* [Guerrini, O. Frammento di un libro di cucina del sec. XIV edito nel di[ag] delle nozze carducci-gnaccarini. Bologna: Nicola Zanichelli, 1887.]

Seppie Nero alla Veneziana
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
Recipe type: Seafood
Cuisine: Venetian
Serves: 4 servings
  • 4 pounds cuttlefish, gutted and cleaned (save the ink sacks) or squid
  • ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil or sunflower seed oil
  • 1 medium onion, very finely chopped
  • 4 large garlic cloves, very finely chopped
  • ¼ cup very finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 2 cups dry white wine
  • ¼ cup Tomato Sauce (optional)
  1. Prepare the cuttlefish and cut into ½-inch squares.
  2. In a large flameproof casserole, heat the oil over medium-low heat, then cook, stirring frequently so the garlic doesn’t burn, the onion and garlic until the onion is translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the cuttlefish and parsley and season with salt and pepper. Continue cooking, stirring frequently, until the cuttlefish looks rubbery, about 20 minutes.
  3. Squeeze the ink sack into the wine (you can also purchase small 4-gram cuttlefish ink packets) and pour the wine mixture a little at a time into the casserole over the next 10 minutes, adding it whenever the sauce looks like it is drying out. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the cuttlefish is tender, about another 40 minutes. Add the tomato sauce if desired and stir. Serve immediately.


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