Scungilli

 

Our most popular AlmostItalian.com post, with thousands of page-views year ’round (but especially just before Christmas), Scungilli put us on the map. Earlier in 2012, when we published Almost Italian: A Cookbook & History of Italian Food in America, we removed the scungilli post from the blog, and it became an entire chapter of the book, which we refer to as Volume I…

sack of scungilli 400px Scungilli
Scungilli, fresh off the boat
Copyright © 2011, Holly Chase

We’re continuing our explorations of Italian ingredients and techniques outside Italy, writing posts that we hope will eventually comprise Volume II of Almost Italian.

It was only a matter of time before scungilli would grab more column space. So when The New York Times gave some recent ink to the rediscovery of whelks by that city’s chefs, we thought we should serve our readers a little holiday treat from our new book. Thus, we’ve brought back our four-year-old post with step-by-step instructions for cleaning and cooking scungilli. Like making our own cavatelli, marinara, and Easter Pie, we think cleaning fresh scungilli is worth the trouble, and that’s why we included those recipes and many others like them in our book.

lamonica conch Scungilli
Most tinned scungilli are also labeled “conch.” The latter are warm-water species.
Copyright © 2012, Skip Lombardi

Whether you use the related, but less flavorful species that are sold in tins, or buy your own channeled whelks, live, in their shells, you can enjoy both the marinated salad and pasta with red sauce recipes below.

Whether you invite scungilli to the Feast of the Seven Fishes or simply enjoy them with pasta, they make a celebratory meal to share with those you love.

Buon Appetito e Buon Natale !

scungilli 1 1 Scungilli
Photo # 1—Close-up of fresh scungilli

Scungilli, very large marine snails, are firmly fixed in Italian-American cuisine—whether served chilled in an insalata di mare or hot in a marinara sauce.  The cold-water species, Busycotypus canaliculatus, channeled whelk, is the one most commonly gathered in New England by those who still bother to fuss with the snails’ labor-intensive preparation. Their meat is dense, chewy, and quite sweet. Larger Italian grocery stores may stock frozen scungilli and most carry tins of “conch”—though the latter are usually different species, from warmer waters in the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, and South Asia.

Although they are not as popular today as calamari, or even octopus and eel, scungilli would be one of the dishes a skilled nonna might prepare for a holiday spread, especially for the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve.

While cooking scungilli is molto semplice, their cleaning has been described as penitential. That’s why a 29-oz can of prepared scungilli costs as much as $26. Nonetheless, the ease of digital photography has inspired us to pick up where Nonna left off. In this post we will document the cleaning of scungilli for current and future ‘Almost Italians.’ So, if someone brings you a 50-lb bag of live whelks, gather all hands and follow these directions. Then, you can freeze your prepped scungilli meat to use on short notice throughout the year.

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Photo # 2—Scungilli ready for steaming

Try to get some seaweed with your live whelks. Rinse the shells and seaweed in clean water. (Scungilli shells may be encrusted with barnacles. Don’t bother trying to remove them.)

Note: We cooked 8 whelks (4 lbs.) for this demonstration.

Place an inch of water (preferably sea-water) and some seaweed in a large pot. Bring the pot to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover, and steam the whelks for 10 minutes.

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Photo # 3—Removing the Scungilli from their Shells

Remove the pot from the burner and uncover. Lift the shells  from the pot with tongs. Place them on a cutting board or large plate until they are cool enough to handle. With a short paring knife or narrow metal spatula, lift open each snail’s operculum, a hard, horn-like oval window protecting the opening of the shell. It may stick to the snail meat or it may come right off. (See photo # 5; the operculum is in the foreground.)

Gently wedge the blade into the shell and let it help you pull out the coiled snail flesh and “attachments” in one piece.

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Photo # 4—Scungilli, out of their Shells

The snail parts you want to keep stop at the dark part of the coil, the snail’s digestive tract. Cut that off and discard.

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Photo # 5—Deconstructed Whelk
Seaweed, entire snail with innards attached, empty shell, & operculum

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Photo # 6—Cooked scungilli, partially trimmed

Cut each of the snails cross-wise in half, to expose the internal digestive tract. Rinse each piece well, leaving an empty channel (Photo # 7)

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Photo # 7—Two cleaned scungilli (each has been halved)

With a very sharp knife, carefully pare away the tougher dark bits on the outside of the scungilli pieces.  This is for aesthetic reasons; reserve these dark trimmings to use in a tomato-based sauce (recipe below).

Set aside the pale, waxy and (relatively) more attractive pieces of scungilli for salads or non-tomato sauces.

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Photo # 8—Trimmed scungilli ready to slice for salad

At this stage, the trimmed scungilli are still rather tough, but they will be further tenderized by the additional steps and preparations below. Freezing will also tenderize cleaned scungilli. If you slice the scungilli 3/8″ thick before freezing, it will only have to be thawed before marinating. The acids of the marinade will complete the tenderization.

Note: From the original 4 pounds of scungilli in their shells (at $2.00 per pound), we now have  just over 2 lbs. of meat: 8 oz. of dark trimmings and 18 oz. of pale meat. One of us has put in about 90 minutes, while the other (the one with clean hands) has snapped the shutter.

If you’ve been curious (or nostalgic) enough to read this far, buon appetito! But if you don’t think that cleaning wild gastropods is how you want to spend your Saturday afternoon, you can look for a deal on another species…

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You may find inexpensive tins of conch.
Their texture is softer, their flavor less briny.

Insalata di Scungilli

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Ingredients:

8-10 oz. Fresh scungilli  (cooked, cleaned, and sliced as above)
I /8 tsp Finely chopped fresh garlic
1/2 Medium Bermuda onion sliced in very thin rings
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes (peperoncini)
Rind of one lemon, grated
Juice of one lemon
1/2 tsp fresh oregano, finely snipped
1-2 Tbs red wine vinegar
2 Tbs Extra virgin olive oil

1 Large, vine-ripened tomato, coarsely chopped (about 8 oz.)
1/4 Cup finely sliced celery
1/4 Cup coarsely chopped Italian flat-leaf  parsley
1 Tbs Fresh basil, finely snipped
Leaves from one heart of Romaine lettuce

NOTE: If you use tinned or frozen scungilli, drain them first. You can reserve the liquid for a seafood risotto or use it as part of the liquid in the pasta recipe below.

Preparation:

In a 1-quart mixing bowl or other non-reactive container, combine the first 11 ingredients; stir to combine. Cover and set aside in a cool place for at least 30 minutes before serving.  You may combine and chill these ingredients up to 12 hours ahead of serving.

Just before serving, add the remaining ingredients and taste for salt and acidity, adding a little more vinegar or oil, to taste.

To Serve:

Serve in small bowls. You may tear the lettuce into large pieces and toss with the scungilli or keep the leaves whole, adding them as crisp garnishes to each serving.

Serves 4-6 as an antipasto or salad.

Scungilli alla Marinara

This is a good use of the less glamorous—but equally tasty—dark scungilli meat.

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Ingredients:

8-10 oz. Prepared scungilli, finely diced (1/4 inch pieces)
3/4 cup clam broth or any liquid left from tinned or thawed scungilli (optional)
2 Cups of My Grandmother’s Marinara Sauce
1/4 Cup Italian flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
2 Tbs. Snipped fresh basil
Additional sprigs of parsley for garnish
1 lb cooked gemelli or other short pasta

Note:  We like to use gemelli, which resemble hanks of twisted rope.  Not only do they provide a good vehicle for this sauce, but their form is a subtle play upon the name marinara, which describes tomato sauce, “sailor’s style.”

Preparation:

In a large, non-reactive saute pan, simmer the marinara sauce, scungilli, and any additional broth or liquid for 20-30 minutes.

Cook the pasta according to directions, but drain it when it is slightly underdone.

Add the drained pasta to the marinara and allow it to cook in the sauce till it has reached the al dente state. Stir in the herbs and serve the pasta and sauce in shallow bowls. Garnish with parsley sprigs.

Serves 4

    19 thoughts on “Scungilli

    1. Charlie Falugo

      Hi Guys!
      Thanks for a great article. I was hungry even before I finished reading about CLEANING the conch! It’s June as I write this and I’m going to test your Scungilli alla Marinara on my father. THAT will be the real test.
      Thanks again.

    2. Will Stewart

      My hometown is half Sicilian, so I used to get scungilli there (it was never on the menu, but you could get it if you asked). They also serve it at Jimmy’s in Asbury Park, NJ, where it *is* on the menu. Yesterday, I saw styrofoam trays of what I hope is pre-cleaned scungilli at a local Korean market (DC area). I can’t wait to get some and try your recipes–thanks!

    3. Skip

      Grazie, Will, for this provocative query.

      We love Korean food, and it is readily apparent that you share our delight in foraging for Italian ingredients in unlikely venues.

      If you Google “Korean” + “scungilli,” you’ll find a surprising number of references to “scungilli” in an Asian food context. Most Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans are far more omnivorous than Americans, and many items in their marine harvest have no equivalent names in English. We think it’s amusing to see the word “scungilli” on Asian menus in Flushing and Queens… What would Nonna think?

      We also know of at least one large Asian supermarket in Metro-DC, that offers live channeled whelks, the cold-water species, Busycotypus canaliculatus, in their shells. But you could also be contemplating steamed octopus, which Koreans relish and use in many different preparations. (Thick slices of octopus tentacle look a lot like pared pieces of channeled whelk.) This isn’t an attempt at deception; it just points out the failures of language when in comes to pan-global gastronomy!

      The scungilli recipes we offer in this post would be equally good with bite-sized chunks of any cephalopod ( such as those big Pacific squid, cuttlefish, or octopus), as well as any firm, chewy mollusk, like conch.

      In other words, you don’t have to settle for something out of a can, whose texture will never measure up to a freshly prepared “fruit of the sea.”

      But please keep in mind that some conch species are endangered.(In the Caribbean, they have been over-harvested for both food and their beautiful pink-lipped shells.)

      –Holly

    4. Terry Tiny Tooya

      I tried everything but still have tough meat. There must be a way to tenderize this meat. I go to a place called Vincent’s on Mott and Hester Street in Manhattan and their scungilli is always very tender and also wish I had the recepe for their Sauce. They would not give me a clue how they tenderize conch

      1. Skip

        Well, you don’t say whether or not you’re using fresh or canned scungilli. But if you’re using fresh, you might try marinating it in the juice of a lemon or two with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Let it sit at room temperature for two hours before proceeding with the rest of the recipe.

        Best of luck,
        Skip Lombardi

    5. Francy

      I tried the Scungilli alla marinara with some nice fusilli pasta (from Abruzzo, one of the best I have found) and they were delicious *I used the frozen ones.
      Ciao
      Francesca

      1. Skip

        Dear Francy–

        Freezing is not just a convenient way to keep scungilli on hand for sauces and salads, but also an excellent technique for tenderizing other seafood like octopus and squid. By the way, you might like to seek out an artisanal Abruzzese pasta secca made to resemble rings of squid. Sold as calamare or calamaretti, these dry pasta rings are hefty (taking about 12 minutes of boiling to reach the al dente state); they mimic both the appearance and texture of real squid and absorb sauce beautifully.

        — Holly

    6. Rex Russo

      My father was a member of the Middletown Italian-American Society (or was it called a Club). Luckily for him, it was located just up the street (Arbutus Street). It was really just a place for the guys to get together and play cards and eat. My father wasn’t so good at cards, but he was good at eating. He’d get very excited when the cook was making scungilli. Once mom and us older kids made him bring some home. We loved it! He never told us when they were having scungilli after that time :( I think I’ll make some soon in his honor.

    7. Bonnie C.

      I ADORE Scungili, but where can it be found these days????

      I fondly remember – long before calamari became a restaurant staple – when Scungili was on every Italian restaurant menu – as a salad, or in sauce over linguini. And for many years I was able to buy it fresh-cooked, frozen, or canned in quite a few local markets – both in NY & in my new home here in VA.

      Alas, no more. I haven’t seen hide nor hair of ANY form of Scungili for 15 years.

      Any ideas for procurement? Particularly fresh frozen?

    8. Jamie

      I found this post because I was looking up any info I could find on Scungilli because my daughter wants me to make it for her again. I remember my father making it when I was little, but I don’t remember the cleaning process. When my father made it he just put the conch shell and all right into the sauce then cooked it for hours. After it was cooked we took our share and pulled the snails out and ate. I remember that part because I loved the way it slid out and curled up. Can I be rememebering this right? Oh yeah, the conch were fresh too because my father would come home with other fresh seafood caught fresh by friends (professional fishermen from the area) we live on Long Island,NY

    9. hollychase

      We think that you may have enjoyed much smaller snails like periwinkles or moon-snails in the manner you describe, but not large whelks.

      Memory can be a funny thing, Jamie…

      The scungilli (channeled whelks) we discuss in this post weigh about 8oz. each (in their shells). Not only would a single snail that big have been very awkward to eat at the table, but your dad certainly would not have wanted to cook the whelks without first discarding their rather large and unappetizing digestive tracts!

      Though your family called your dad’s snail dish “scungilli,” as we’ve noted many times on this blog, Italians have highly localized terms for food. What were scungilli in one household might simply have been “lumache” (snails) in another.

      While it would be almost impossible to trim tiny land snails (the classic escargot) and smaller sea snails the way we dissected the large whelks, mollusks do benefit by a period of purging before they are to be cooked. Search the Web for “purging snails” and you’ll find simple instructions.

      Buon appetito!

    10. Jamie

      Hi Hollychase,

      Thanks for the response. I just looked up the other snails you mentioned and I am sure they were whelks. They were bigger then our hands, some even bigger then my father’s. My father wasn’t the kind of man that sat neatly at the table and ate these things. My mother would give up the kitchen when he came home with them (because he took over the whole kitchen). We would be up to our elbows in sauce and snails and whatever else he put in the pot. Maybe he purged them, the way you mentioned at the end….
      Jamie

      1. hollychase

        We really hope that your father did purge the snails before they made it into the marinara! But whether or not he did– your family obviously survived to eat and cook another day! We hope other readers weigh in on this topic of cooking and serving channeled whelks in their shells.

    11. Gdaiva

      Those scungilli, whelk,conch or some other Latin names, I simply call sea snails. I pick them on the ocean beach in Alaska when the tide is going out, usually,when the tides are bigger. They are not too abundant in bigger size, but still its worth the effort, because they are so delicious. I clean them in a very similar way as you do, except I boil them for about 3 minutes for smaller or 5 min for bigger(mine are not as big as yours, smaller ones about 5 inches, bigger-7 inches, there still are some smaller ones on the beach, about 2-3 inch, but I don’t pick them, so they can grow). And after they cleaned I cook them right away or freeze them.

      Really love them in white wine and cream sauce.

      I think they become tough if you cook them longer, I treat them just like clams.
      http://www.flickr.com/photos/gdaiva/5892142928/

    12. Ambradambra

      These look amazing. I live in Sydney, Australia and have never seen them sold in Italian delis. But have seen the shells many times fashioned as lampshades. Love your blog – just discovered it. I started mine ‘The Good, the Bad and the Italian’ in May and really enjoying writing about things Italian. Cheers

      1. Skip

        Thanks for your note. It’s possible that the “scungilli” sold in Italian markets in Sydney are labeled as “conch.” Two of the popular brands here are Roland, and LaMonica. I’m afraid I don’t know if they have worldwide distribution.

        Best regards,
        Skip Lombardi

    13. Jim

      Scungilli are really hard to find here in Canada. Fresh Scungilli are almost impossible to find but I got a hold of the canned ones. Thankfully there is a very large Italian community here in Toronto. Tried the recipe, simply delicious!

      1. Holly Chase

        Try the excellent CHINESE markets in Toronto. They are very likely to have the fresh scungilli, although they may be labeled as “whelks” or more simply, “sea snails.” Do let us know if you find them– particularly towards the weekend, when Asian (like Italian) immigrant families are more apt to have the time to devote to preparing these delectable critters!

    14. Valerie

      Excellent Post. I used to frequent Federal Hill in Providence RI and order the Scungilli salad. Their variation had sliced black olives in it. Too lazy to do from scratch so I buy the La Monica. Also be warned that cooking raw scungilli really smells!

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