What’s cooking today: Italian calamari stew (calamari in umido)

What’s cooking today: Italian calamari stew (calamari in umido)
Tony Jackman’s Italian calamari stew (calamari in umido). (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Calamari in umido is a tomato- and wine-based stew that is widely popular in Italy where it is served as a secondo (second course). It is a simple but satisfying dish ideal for a weeknight supper.

Unlike many Italian recipes which tend to be specific to a particular region, calamari in umido is eaten throughout Italy. It is the slow kind of calamari recipe, the general rule being that squid should either be cooked quickly or slowly, that is: for three or for 30 minutes. Once you know this, you can pretty much cook calamari, although you do need to know about the temperatures to cook them at too. So there’s calamari, demystified. It’s not so difficult after all to avoid it being tough.

In essence, “in umido” is the Italian way of saying it is cooked in a liquid braising stock or its own juices, or a combination of those, although there are other kinds of Italian stews such as spezzatino (e.g. spezzatino di manzo: beef stew) and ragu, a very fine stew or braise of meat. (I once cooked spezzatino di manzo in a potjie.) A ragu, which is usually served with pasta, consists of small pieces of meat braised slowly in a wine or tomato braising liquid. If, then, your calamari was cut into small pieces, you could arguably make a ragu of it instead of cooking it in umido. 

The liquid that calamari in umido is cooked in consists of tomato (chopped), olive oil and white wine, although the last is cooked away before the tomato is added to the pan. But the essence of the wine is still there in flavour.

There is garlic too, and usually red chilli flakes or, if you like, fresh red chilli. The garlic is discarded before other ingredients are added to the pan. Some recipes include a bay leaf, which must also be removed. I chose to add a whole red chilli to the olive oil at the outset because if you can remove the whole garlic cloves and bay leaf, why not a whole chilli too?

Not all recipes for it include onion (usually red when it is included), but I think the dish benefits from onion so I recommend its addition.

Some recipes include capers, others black olives, and some have both. Others include fennel. Some cooks may add anchovy fillets.

Calamari in umido is often served with toasted bread rubbed with garlic, or polenta, but rice is good too.

(Serves 2)


800 g calamari rings, thawed

¼ cup olive oil

2 garlic cloves, whole

1 bay leaf

1 red chilli, whole

1 small red onion, finely chopped

2 glasses dry white wine

800 g chopped tomatoes

50 g tomato paste

Parsley, chopped 

Salt and black pepper to taste


Make sure the calamari is fully defrosted, drained and patted dry. I used plenty of kitchen paper to mop up all the water in them.

Add the olive oil to a heavy pan. Add garlic cloves and a whole chilli to the olive oil, and a bay leaf. Turn on the heat and simmer very gently for 2 or 3 minutes just for the aromatics to infuse the olive oil, then remove them (the garlic, bay leaf and chilli) and discard. It’s only their flavours that you want in this subtle dish.

Add calamari rings to the oil and fry on a high heat, just a couple of minutes (they will continue to cook gently for a full half hour later). Remove them to a side dish while you cook the next batch.

Once the calamari is all pre-cooked, add the chopped red onion to the oil and sauté gently until it has softened but not taken on any colour.

Add the white wine and reduce on a vigorous heat until mostly cooked away. (Don’t leave it for the onion to take on colour.)

Return the calamari to the pan. Add the chopped tomatoes on a high heat, stir in the tomato paste, season with salt and pepper, then turn it down a little and cook on a moderate simmer for 30 minutes. If there is too much liquid when 30 minutes have passed, cook for a few more minutes. The idea is for the sauce to be minimal but have fulsome flavour.

Add chopped parsley and give it a stir.

Leave to rest for 10 minutes before serving.

Serve with steamed rice, or polenta, or toasted bread rubbed with garlic. Garnish with more chopped parsley. DM

Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks.


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