Examining early San Francisco menus at the NYPL menu archive, cioppino caught my eye a few times. This is the famed San Francisco seafood dish, a blend of tomato, garlic, olive oil, fish or shellfish. Many types of seasoning or herbs can be added, and other vegetables.
Dungeness crab, shrimp, scallops, rock cod, sea bass and salmon, often figure for the seafood but a great variety is used. There is no fixed formula apart (it seems) the base of oil, onion or garlic, and tomato.
Although I read much more widely, Wikipedia’s entry on the dish appears to offer an accurate summary of the currently understood origins:
The earliest printed description of cioppino is from a 1901 recipe in The San Francisco Call, though the stew is called “chespini”. “Cioppino” first appears in 1906 in The Refugee’s Cookbook, a fundraising effort to benefit San Franciscans displaced by the 1906 earthquake and fire.
Taken literally this can refer to the first published recipes vs. first appearance of the term as such. If so though, one would think the first appearance would also be mentioned, so it seems the two are conflated.
My review of early San Francisco menus at NYPL disclosed a “ciuppino” that precedes 1901. It’s in a menu from 1897 at Martinelli’s in the city (shown below). This was an early Italian restaurant founded by two brothers from Piedmont who were the premier pasta makers in the city. See David Shields’ 2017 The Culinarians: Lives and Careers from the First Age of American Fine Dining, at p. 481.
The menu, for a private dinner, featured an exemplary Italian meal with Sicilian wine. It shows Italian culture was well-established in the city by the 1890s, having sprung from an already vibrant Latin quarter, aka North Beach. To this day North Beach reflects many Italian influences.
The menu was for a musician’s club. The dishes and proceedings are described in a comic fashion popular in America then, today rather cringeworthy. But as a historical artifact it shows cioppino the dish existed in the late 1890s save for a mildly different spelling.
In the same year of 1897, in March, L’Italia, an Italian newspaper in the city prints in italics “ciuppin”. Fried fish is also cited in the passage. The ciuppin is clearly the dish the music club enjoyed. Our Italian is not sufficient to explain full details of L’Italia’s story, maybe a reader can help.
For more information on the original dish of northwest Italy, this page on ciuppin, from the Cook’s Info site (online food encyclopedia), is most informative.
Note the connection made to a dish brought by emigrating Italians to Argentina and Uruguay, which clearly evolved in its own way there. There are, therefore, at least two transpontine versions, the Californian and South American. Cook’s Info has a separate, informative page on the former.
We may note that in Martinelli’s menu the full name given the dish is “ciuppino all’ Italiana”. This underscores the long-understood Italian origins of cioppino. It makes it express, in other words.
But I found yet an earlier citation perusing the pages of California Digital Newspaper Collection. It appeared on June 2, 1893 in the San Francisco Call, and reads:
A New Club.— A number of Italian American citizens organized a new club yesterday. It is called the Ciupino and Chowder Club, and the following-named were chosen officers: President, G. C. Tenassio; vice-president, Dr. Joseph Pescia; treasurer, F. Arata; directors— P. Sanguinetti, D. Ginocchio, Dr. V. Vaccari, G. Gueraglia. E. Palmieri, L. VaIente, F. Lucchetti, G. Baggurro, G. Costa, E. Boitano, J. Cavagnaro, G. Schioppoceasse, secretary.
Chowder clubs or parties were legion in the latter 19th century, e.g. a humorous discussion appeared in John Stanton’s Corry O’Lanus (1867). Continuing the tradition, the San Francisco club, probably a professional or business group, conjoined a local ethnic dish with an older ethnic one (Anglo-American) related in composition.
In part this may have been to ensure public familiarity with the club’s function or attract members more easily. The path from rudely cooked but savoury port-side dish to bon ton city offering is more easily understood when mediated by a club such as mentioned.
A club needed places to meet, and so the dish would have penetrated the restaurants that way. The club’s meetings had to help, certainly.
Nor can “ciupino” and “ciuppino” be dismissed as of uncertain connection to cioppino. Apart from “ciupino” being bracketed with chowder in 1897 as noted, the variant spellings show a similar connection to the Italian origins of the dish. Per Wikipedia:
The name [cioppino] comes from cioppin (also spelled ciopin) which is the name of a classic soup from the Italian region Liguria, similar in flavor to cioppino but with less tomato and using Mediterranean seafood cooked to the point that it falls apart.
As discussed above some sources in fact render the dialect terms as “ciuppin”, or “ciupin”. Also, “ciupino” and “ciuppino” appear in the San Francisco press through the mid-20th century to denote the dish. One need only search California Digital Newspapers to see. An example appears as late as 1959. The story (Blue Lake Advocate, April 16, 1959) states:
The Veterans of Foreign Wars County Council met at Fortuna in the Veterans’ Memorial Building last Wednesday evening for the annual crab ciuppino dinner prepared by Nat Evans, Jr., who is District Council Commaftder. Those attending from Blue Lake included Eugene Costa, John Costa, Marvin Ingersoll, then local Commander, Robert Spaletta, the new local Commander, and Lance Peithman. The regular county council meeting followed the much enjoyed crab dinner.
The alternate spellings occasionally appeared until “cioppino” emerged as the norm, seemingly by the 1960s. Even the early “chespini” is obviously the same dish, probably a journalist’s awkward rendering.
To remove somewhat from the academic, I tasted the dish once, at Tadich Grill in San Francisco. It was extremely good. The image below is from the website linked.
Note re images: sourced from the links identified and included in the text. Used for educational and research purposes. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.