For seven years, chef/owner Cristian Pietoso has awed guests at Via Vite with his flaming salt-crusted branzino. “After the first one left the kitchen,” Pietoso claims, “everyone wanted an order.” The tableside pyrotechnics are not all for show. The burning sprig of rosemary unleashes an earthy scent enjoyed by the whole table. If branzino isn’t available, Pietoso recommends snapper, sea bream, or black bass. Just remember—the fresher the fish, the better.
2 branzini (one pound each)
5 c sea salt
¾ c all-purpose flour
4 small sprigs fresh rosemary
1 lemon, sliced
1 c water
Extra virgin olive oil
High proof alcohol (such as vodka) for flaming
1. Have your fishmonger gut, scale, and remove the gills from the branzini. Rinse the fish with cold water and pat dry. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
2. Place the fish on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Insert a sprig of rosemary and a slice of lemon into each fish’s cavity.
3. In a large bowl, combine the salt and flour. Slowly add the water until it is the consistency of wet sand. You may not need the entire amount of water.
4. With your hands, mold and cover the fish entirely (from head to tail) with the salt and flour mixture and bake in the oven for about 12–15 minutes. Crust will be solid and golden.
5. Remove from the oven and place the fish on a platter. Serve with a sprig of rosemary on top, drizzle with alcohol, and ignite just before serving.
6. Once flame is out, use a spoon to gently crack and remove the crust.
7. Filet the fish, removing as many bones as possible. Drizzle with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice.