Fish soup with pasta

Fish soup with pasta

Minestra di pesce

Emiko Davies; Lauren Bamford

Like many peasant dishes, this velvety, brothy soup is an enormously comforting and warming dish. It’s like a fisherman’s version of pastina in brodo, which is usually made with homemade chicken or beef stock, a sort of Italian chicken noodle soup. The secret behind its wonderful flavour is the use of a variety of whole, small fish – the kind you find in piles at the markets labelled pesce da zuppa, or ‘fish for soup’.

In her classic book Honey from a Weed (1986), Patience Gray describes a similar dish Zuppa di pesciolini di scoglio (‘soup of little rockfish’) from Puglia’s Salento, where she questions whether it is ‘infanticide’ to eat such tiny, immature fish: ‘If left in the sea would they grow up?’ Indeed, it’s probably hard to find these little fish outside Italy so you can use a mixture of their adult-sized versions – the only downside to this is that you won’t be able to get as much variety for this quantity (unless you are prepared to make enough for 12 portions!).

The small versions of these fish can be rather fiddly to clean and prepare, but the benefit of this recipe is that you don’t need to fiddle so much as the food mill does all that work. If you don’t have a food mill (a passaverdura or passatutto in Italian, or a mouli as some call it), I suggest getting one. You won’t regret it! It’ll be your best friend for every sauce, purée, jam or mash that you want to make. What makes it different from, say, a blender, is that it actually separates the things you want and those you don’t want. The fish bones and head and skin? Those get filtered out through this remarkable contraption, so you’re only left with all the juicy, flavourful goodness.


Quantity Ingredient
300g small mixed fish
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, whole and unpeeled
1 brown onion, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
125ml white wine
4 fresh large tomatoes
or 400g peeled tomatoes or tomato passata
1 handful basil leaves, chopped
1 handful flat-leaf parsley, leaves picked and chopped
1 freshly chopped red chilli or dried chilli flakes, taste (optional)
120g dried miniature pasta, such as ditalini, risoni, stelline, quadretti, or even broken-up pieces of spaghetti


  1. The fish need to be rinsed, scaled and gutted – make a slit underneath the fish from the head to the belly to pull out the guts. Rinse and pat dry.
  2. Gently heat the olive oil in a saucepan and cook the whole garlic clove, onion and celery for 5 minutes over low heat, stirring occasionally. Add the fish, turn the heat up to medium and cook for a further 3 minutes. Add the wine and let it cook down for about 5 minutes.
  3. If using fresh tomatoes, score their bottoms and blanch in boiling water for 30 seconds, then quickly remove to a bowl of ice water. They should be very easy to peel now. Remove the skins and quarter them, remove seeds and chop the rest.
  4. Add the tomato to the saucepan, along with the herbs and chilli, if using. Season with salt and pepper and pour over 1 litre of cold water. Bring to the boil, then turn down the heat to a steady simmer. Cook for 10 minutes, then cover and keep on a low simmer for a further 30 minutes.
  5. Pass the soup through a food mill to break down the solid pieces of fish and vegetables and to remove the bones (if you have particularly large pieces, you can blend the soup roughly first before passing through the food mill). Then strain the resulting soup through a fine-meshed sieve as well. If you don’t have a food mill, that’s fine. Blend it a little first (not too much!) and then pass it through a fine-meshed sieve.
  6. Return the soup back to the pot and bring to a simmer. Cook the pasta directly in the soup until al dente (follow the recommended timing on the packet) and serve immediately in individual bowls.


  • Typical fish for this soup include red gurnard, red mullet, scorpion fish, hake, megrim sole, stargazers and bream. If you don’t have small mixed fish available to you, the best option is to use a larger one of these whole fish and combine with a couple of fillets of the other fish. Another way of adding flavour is to use the leftover fish heads and tails from other meals. Rather than throw them out when filleting fish, keep the heads/bones in the freezer for occasions like this!
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