For 165 years, Tadich Grill in San Francisco’s financial district has operated at the same rhythm. Salmon sizzles under the broiler, white-jacketed bartenders stir and shake lunch-hour martinis, and servers hurry by with bowls of the restaurant’s famous cioppino, a tomato-wine stew brimming with clams, mussels, shrimp, whitefish, and Dungeness crab.
With that much history under its belt, the cioppino is, understandably, delicious. The dish is also ubiquitous in San Francisco, having become as clichéd as Fisherman’s Wharf, where nearly every eatery hawks a version. For the first five years I lived here, I avoided it entirely. But after Tadich opened a second location in Washington, D.C., I realized it was time to discover cioppino before East Coasters beat me to it.
I started by meeting with chef Wil Going, the Virginia native charged with re-creating the Tadich experience at its D.C. location. He was in San Francisco to get schooled in coat-and-tie hospitality at the original Tadich, and to learn the restaurant’s cioppino recipe, which dates back at least 50 years.
The original dish likely arrived in San Francisco with Italian immigrants in the mid-19th century. At the end of each day, these fishermen, most of them from Genoa, would combine whatever seafood they couldn’t sell with ingredients they had on deck, namely canned tomatoes and wine. Legend has it someone would walk around the docks calling for leftovers to throw into a communal cauldron. “Chip in, chip in,” the Italian-accented solicitor would yell, which morphed into “chip-EE-no.” Others say the soup is essentially the Genoese stew ciuppin but with such local ingredients as Dungeness crab.
Whatever the origins, the stew has endured—and for years it remained something you could only truly experience in San Francisco. That is, until Tadich announced its plans to build a grand corner bistro just down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, a big move for a restaurant with such strong ties to the Left Coast. Tadich, however, is no sellout on authenticity. The restaurant regularly flies in a supply of Dungeness crab and specially baked Boudin sourdough.
While Going has been tasked with transferring cioppino to a new city, other Bay Area chefs are reviving it in creative ways. I inhale a version at Town Hall that features Herbsaint liquor, fennel, Early Girl tomatoes, potatoes, and a deep-fried softshell crab. I discover the secret technique behind Alioto’s cioppino. And I pay a visit to Scoma’s, another local stalwart that recently made waves by becoming 100 percent compliant with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s sustainable seafood program.
Yet it’s Tadich that’s introducing the classic cioppino to a new audience. A classic, it turns out, that has evolved: Going admits that the restaurant’s recipe has more than 30 ingredients, including a few Asian components that he’s forbidden to reveal.
“Cioppino is attributed to Italian immigrants, but this city is a definite melting pot of cultures,” he says. And really, is there any better dish to absorb such changes? After all, Going says, “the whole origin of the dish is about chipping in.”
>>Next: In San Francisco, There’s a New Style of Brunch We Can Get Behind