For me, the first time I tried gamberi rossi in Italy, it was love at first sight. Its flavor is much more delicate than that of any other shrimp, its color beautiful on the plate. This was my entrata into understanding the importance and beauty of eating simply-prepared, high-quality local seafood that one might not be able to find in other parts of the world. I've never seen the gambero rosso in America, though perhaps some upscale seafood eateries are importing it somewhere stateside. But it's a go-to whenever I'm in any coastal area in southern Italy. I seek it out. I always order it when I find it on a menu. I prefer it uncooked. And since the Mediterranean red prawn lives at a depth of between 200 - 1000 meters beneath the sea -- deeper waters tend to be cleaner waters -- its wonderfully delicate flesh is amazing when eaten raw.
The flavor is briny and lacks the iodine punch that some shrimp deliver, and the texture is melt-in-your-mouth. When I was in Puglia recently, in the southernmost part of the heel of the "boot" of Italy, my friend and I headed to Gallipoli, an adorable whitewashed-and-pastel town surrounded by sandy beaches with Caribbean-colored water. We headed into town after a day at the beach, to get a gelato and nose around the shops. And as we walked up to the gelateria, along the water, I saw below us a small piazza where fisherman were coming in with their catches, and tables were being set up for a makeshift evening fish market.
My friend Monica, who moved down to Puglia from Rome with her husband Marcello, and has lived in the area for a few years, had told me earlier that Gallipoli was renowned for its gamberi rossi -- possibly the best on the Italian peninsula (I'm excluding the island-region of Sicily, as they'd claim to have the best on the planet!) Naturally my priority was to head to the fish market directly after finishing our gelati. There, among the varieties of fish and various sizes of calamari, were the beautiful ruby-colored shellfish I'd been hoping to find. I asked how much they cost, knowing that their price tag in Rome can run as high as 40 euros per kilo. "Dodici" said the fishmonger, and I tried to hide my smile. 12 euros, less than 8 U.S. dollars a pound! I bought a kilo and we headed back to our friends' house for aperitivi. When my friend Jessica had asked earlier in the day what a gambero rosso tastes like, I told her it was delicate and rich, basically "the burrata of the shrimp world" -- and having feasted on burrata a-plenty of late (the cheese originated in Puglia), she knew exactly what that meant.
When we got back, our 4 friends were already sipping vino rosato poolside in the cortile. So I quickly showered and dressed for dinner, then headed directly to the kitchen to prepare the red shrimp for us. This is a simple preparation that highlights the shrimp's rich flavor and texture, leaving it uncomplicated and allowing you to taste the true gambero rosso flavor.
To prepare: I cleaned the shrimp, removing the shells (don't discard! Keep the heads and shells to make a wonderfully flavorful shellfish stock!)...and cleaning out the intestinal line with a knife. Then I split the shrimp in half lengthwise. I rinsed the shrimp very briefly under water and dried them before spreading them out on two plates to make a layer of what is essentially shrimp carpaccio. Then, I very simply squeezed a bit of fresh lemon over top (and if I'd had a microplane, I would've added some zest, too), topped with some herbed salt (you can mix sea salt or kosher salt in a food processor with your favorite herbs to make your own), and sprinkled some of the wonderfully buttery and green Pugliese olive oil on top. And that's it. We enjoyed it with some local rose wine, and it was the perfect treat to accompany our lively conversation as the warm southern Italian sun sank behind the walls of the courtyard.