What I particularly like in Sicilian fish recipes is the use of whole fish. In Sicilian kitchens it is common to either fillet the fish before cooking it and use the bones to make the stock (for the accompanying sauce) or what is more common, the whole fish is cooked and filleted when ready to serve. Either way, the bones contribute to the flavour of the dish.

In Australia so much of the fish sold is filleted, whereas in fish markets in Italy (includes Sicily) I have only seen whole fish – fish steaks from large fish, yes. Even in a pescheria (fish shop) there are very few fillets.

In the past few months, in the fish market where I shop I have noticed larger than usual quantities of John Dory (called pesce San Pietro in Italian and pisci San Petru in Sicilian). A common Sicilian way to cook it is with marsala – fina or secca of course (both dry). I found a version of this recipe in my copy of Sicilia in Bocca, Harel Edizioni.

And why is it called Pesce San Pietro (Saint Peter’s fish)?

The fish has a pair of dark spots on the sides of its large head that look like bruises left by two strong fingers.

The speculations are many; here are three:

At some stage Saint Peter, the fisherman, caught one of these fishes in the Sea of Galilee, held it and threw it back. Peter obviously squeezed too hard on this occasion and in the following situations.

Other stories are associated to a coin. It is a species of fish reputed to carry its young in its mouth and when there are no young it picks up, round pebbles or similar shapes. The fish that Saint Peter caught must have picked up a coin, the very one that Peter had to render unto Caesar, as directed by Jesus according to the Gospel of Saint Matthew.

Yet another idealized Christian conception relates to Saint Peter throwing the fish back, renouncing being a fisherman and his possessions to follow Jesus and share the bigger riches of Heaven.

For 2 people


John Dory, 1 large fillet (750-800g) or 2 fillets, about 375-400g each
fish stock, ¾ cup (fumet – reduced broth – see below)
marsala (dry), 1 cup
extra virgin olive oil , ½ cup
salt and pepper, to taste
plain flour, a little


Make fumet with head, bones, 2 bay leaves, 3 peppercorns,1-2 spring onions, a pinch of salt. Cover with water and reduce to ¾ cup. Drain and discard the solids.
Dip each fillet lightly in flour and a little salt. Lightly fry on both sides in the hot oil.
Add the marsala and evaporate it – leave the fillets without turning to prevent breakage. The marsala will caramelize.
Add the fish stock and deglaze the juices. Add freshly ground pepper.
I served it with a salad made with fennel and blood oranges (new to the season), and a little mashed potato to soak up the marsala flavoured juices.