Catching and Eating Ricci di Mare – Sea Urchins

One of my favorite experiences during vacation was going to the beach at Mattinatella, in the Parco Nazionale del Gargano in Puglia, Italy. Other than the beautiful beach, the water was great and though I sometimes miss the waves of a raging ocean, it’s nice to float and swim for hours as if I was in a lake.

Mattinatella Beach

One of the favorite seaside flavors in Italy are the Ricci di Mare, or Sea Urchins. If you are in Italy during the summer, you may find families hunched around a large bag of sea urchins at lunchtime, enjoying a nice aperitivo.

These are considered a bit of a delicacy for several reasons: the amount of effort it takes to collect them, and the amount of edible material you actually receive for pounds collected. You could buy these from a fishmonger or the pulp in a can, but why? The joy of collecting them yourselves and then eating them directly on the beach is what a ricci di mare lover enjoys. Once you find where they are, the ricci di mare can be pulled off with gloves or using tools (bring a big bag!) Though they are spiny, the don’t hurt when they walk across your hand, and rather tickle.

Ricci di Mare - Sea Urchins ready to be Eaten

Opening the sea urchin is an important process because the edible part rests completely on one side, so you don’t want to open (and destroy) the wrong end! This is an instrument used specifically for this purpose. If you don’t have it on hand, here is a video that shows you how to open them with scissors, but a cleaner cut will probably preserve the edible part better and is worth the investment.

Aprire i Ricci di Mare - Cutting Open Sea Urchins

The edible part is commonly referred to as “roe” which is synonymous with fish eggs, but in this case, it’s actually the organ that produces the eggs rather than the eggs themselves and therefore considered gonads. They can be rinsed with fresh water or salt water before eating or you can pick around the internal parts of the sea urchin without rinsing. They definitely have a salty, complex sea taste that my brain associates with the smell of fresh fish my stepfather would catch and clean for us to eat that evening, and a consistency that is so light that it’s almost foamy.

Ricci di Mare - Sea Urchins

Most ricci di mare lovers will tell you that eating the roe fresh and on its own is the best way to eat them, but often people will make a simple pasta dish with them. Susan from Porcini Chronicles made Spaghetti ai Ricci di Mare con Limone. Risotto is also a popular option for eating ricci di mare.

To eat the sea urchin, tip it to drain out any remaining liquid, and you can scoop out the rows with your tongue one at a time, or use a knife or small spoon. You may be able to find the Ricci di Mare pulp or roe in Korean or Japanese food markets (“uni” in Japanese).

Polpa di Ricci di Mare - Sea Urchin Roe

Comments

  1. Ms. Adventures in Italy says

    Paola, I’m sorry, I think you’re thinking of datteri di mare, which are illegal since you have to remove part of the rock to “harvest” them and therefore destroy the ecosystem. This site http://tinyurl.com/yooggt talks about legal harvesting of sea urchins in Italy.

  2. says

    Well there’s no right answer. In some regions you can eat “ricci di mare”, in others you can’t.

    It depends on regional laws and even on seasons.

    For example, you can’t eat them on summer, but eating them is legal during winter. ;)

  3. says

    I live in california. 20 years ago, the fisherman sold sea urchins for 25 cents each, but we didn’t even buy it. When the japanese took it all for the shushi, then we realize how valuable it is.

  4. says

    I loved this post! I never knew how to open them properly. I have always wanted to eat them straight from the beach, but now I know I need to come prepared. That is one of the best flavors in the world when they are that freschissima!

  5. Tiffany says

    OMG! That video from Ms. South Carolina was unbelievable. I have never seen anything like it…Scary is right!

    It sounds like you guys had a great time in the South. We also went to Puglia, but quite a bit further south, between Gallipoli and Santa Maria di Leuca. Hope all is well and you are still nice and tanned! T

  6. says

    Don’t forget that you need to know how to pick out the females verses the males! It’s no use opening up something that has no eggs! The females usually have smaller spines and a bigger “test” which is the English word for the body of a sea urchin. I still haven’t warmed up to the taste.

    Jeff

  7. says

    I checked online before posting. I can’t really say fromt he pics you posted, but they seem to be one of the following: Echinodermata
    Ophidiaster ophidianus
    Asterina pancerii
    Centrostephanus
    longispinus (Riccio di mare a spine
    lunghe)
    Paracentrotus lividus ( Riccio di mare di roccia)

    List taken from http://www.sibm.it/file%20.doc/specie_protette.pdf
    (Società Italiana Biologia Marina)

  8. Ms. Adventures in Italy says

    Hi Paola – I appreciate you commenting, and I do think there is some merit to what you’re saying, but I think it’s not as simple as it seems – the site I mentioned before is run by the FAO and is reliable. It also mentions limits for private/commercial fishermen as well as a minimum size limit of each sea urchin, and the periods of stop are May and June.

    The Ministry of the Environment in Italy mentions there are over 118 species of Echinodermi in Italy, of which only 4 types are protected (the ones you listed above). http://www.minambiente.it/index.php?id_sezione=1557

    Echinodermi. Sono uno dei più caratteristici phyla animali: comprendono crinoidi (gigli di mare), oloturoidi (cetrioli di mare), asteroidi (stelle di mare), ofiuroidi (stelle serpentine) ed echinoidi (ricci di mare). In Mediterraneo sono note 143 specie, delle quali 118 sono state raccolte anche nei mari italiani. Quattro specie (due stelle e due ricci) sono considerate meritevoli di protezione.

    I’m not a marine biologist, but I would think these particular ricci di mare are not illegal since many restaurants in Italy serve dishes using them and risk being fined! I did not fish for these ricci, nor did anyone in my group, so unfortunately I can’t account for their location or collection method.

    I think it’s interesting to share this as I see them eaten quite often on the beaches in Italy. I agree there needs to be clearer legislation!

  9. Ceri says

    Great pics but I think they look better than they taste, we had them in Venice………. Hope you are enjoying the city life again.

  10. says

    if I am not wrong, the ricci di mare sold in the restaurant should be the cultivated ones.
    Anyway there are way too species!

    I have a biologist friend who work as a researcher at his uni and told me he made experiment using ricci di mare’ sperm and they came from France. (I’m still laughing…and wondering how you extract sperm from them, anyway!)

  11. edinburgh tourist says

    I went to mediteranian Turkey this Summer and trod on one of these little sods about 4 metres from the shore! It was my aniversary and my boyfriend fetched the blasted thing from the sea for me. I was adament you could eat them, so we took it into the restaurant behind us to ask-but alas they said it was too small. Now I know how to do it I shall not hesitate next time I find one! Thanks!

  12. Francesco says

    How wonderful to have found this website. Your descriptions are right on…including how to open “i ricci” with scissors! This is the was we used to do it when I was a kid and lived in Italy, and it’s still the way we do it in the U.S. whenever we buy the greenish ones. My preference is for the ones from the Adriatic for sure.

    I love your site!

    Thanks for the memories.

  13. jojo says

    dove for these with an italian friend by the seashore not too far from rome– ate them right there on the rocks and it was the most beautiful experience — still vivid after all these years.
    But anyway, I’m still confused on how to tell the males from females — I never got it– my friend was telling me the females have a more purplish color? so smaller spines, smaller test and purplish color? anybody can help?

  14. says

    In my country, sometimes sea urchins are nuisance because they attacked the coral reefs. Divers are employed to pick them by hand. Not sure if the catch was sent to Japanese restaurants for sushi…

    To eat the gonads take guts to do it. I ate once and it tasted like sea water with strong smell… quite awful for me though. Also the thought of eating reproductive organs put me off … :-P Definitely this delicacy is in my No-No List…:-D

  15. OJ's owner says

    Great pics. These bastages can become addictive but unfortunately are quite expensive in the states.

    I can only imagine how good a fresh/live one tastes but have so far only enjoyed what’s available on the eastcoast as Sushi…..which is still well worth it btw!

  16. Martin Yarnit says

    Mattinatella or Mattinata? I recognise your photo so I think it’s the latter. The best beaches in a two week tour around Puglia, altho the nature reserve beach near Ostuni is great. To accompany your travels you need An Appetite for Puglia, a travel/cook book that will inspire your food travels there. Don’t miss the recommended restaurant in Trani by the way.

  17. Elise says

    I had sea urchin at a restaurant in the suburbs of Detroit, it was my first time trying it, and it was like swallowing fishy mucous. Is that the common complaint for first timers or is there just something wrong with that urchin?

  18. christian yow sang says

    I wish to know if the taste of the edible parts of the sea urchin is better if we fry it first ?. please let me know ? i am from mauritius island and there are a lot of these sea urchin which is a nuisance for swimmers ? please reply reply back to me on facebook or on my mail… thanks from Christian Yow Sang … of Mauritius

  19. Karen says

    Love your site. Have tried many of your posted recipes all with great success. My husband’s favorite is the Paparadelle with gorgonzola. Anyway, I just noticed that a couple of these same photos are in the May issue of La Cucina Italiana. Do you do work for them, too? Keep up the good work. Living vicariously…

  20. Ms. Adventures in Italy says

    Hi Karen – you’re absolutely right, those are my photos! :) Glad you spotted them! Thanks for reading.

  21. OmniNom says

    I love uni.
    Folks, be aware that this is a highly perishable delicacy and that the quality of what you are served will define your experience. Your local Japanese sushi place may have (commercially stabilized with chemical baths) uni. There are basically 3 classes, A through C. Class A uni is firm, fresh, looks like a tongue, has a taste between vanilla kisses to iodine filled phlegm (!) Your uni should not be runny nor have bubbles! Beware chef shenanigans feeding Class B yuck to tourists…
    I love uni.

  22. says

    I loved reading this article…as I visited Gallipoli last Winter, I want to go back and try the sea urchins…
    My daughter lives in Galatina near Lecce… I lived in Mattanada for 6 weeks with her 8 years ago…
    I have shared my daughter’s blog with you …
    Thanks for sharing :)

  23. Stuart says

    Hey folks,

    I live in Aruba, I would love to try the urchin, I am finding it hard to find out if any of them out here are edible.

    Could someone help me out here please.

  24. Liske says

    Hi folks,
    Great site, and comment exchange.
    Could anyone tell me where to buy that special tool for opening them correctly, without scissors?

    Thanks for answering!

  25. bongbong says

    sea urchin taste like the crab roe! thats one of the most expensive dishes in japan, probably really good for health.

    I bought a big bag of those in a small island in indonesia for 5cents only! and it taste so good. if you go to some of the restaurant, sometimes it has the “smell” means its not fresh anymore.

    but sea urchin has a lot of types, my dad just bought an island and build a villa there, and in one area of the beach theres a lot of sea urchin, but not this type, they’re like long spines. is that edible as well?

  26. Regina wong says

    After reading the post of reponse that mention about porhabited of fishing urchin in italy, i want to highlight the topic of called privention- COMMERCIAL FISHING, judge by fishing for sell, which was not restricted to anyone who are fishing urchin for self use. If we are going to fish for sell, we should obey the law which restrict to protect the eco by preventing fishermen fish more than 1000 units, 50 units not less than 7cm in diameter with rake
    The reason why i want to highlight the related law, i love eating urchin and want caught them by myself. Sharing but not scaring anyone has the same favore as i hd.

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