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.
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.
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.
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.
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).