What Exactly Is Calamari?

Here's the deal on the golden-fried shared-app favorite.

January 23, 2020

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You've no doubt seen calamari as a menu option, its little rubbery rings or tentacles most often flash-fried and served with a side of cocktail or marinara sauce. But what exactly is calamari?

Calamari is squid, a sea creature in the cephalopod family, and has two edible parts, the tube and the tentacles, says Executive Chef Dan Billo of Atlantic Fish Co. in Boston. It's similar to octopus but much more tender, which is why it shows up on menus more often. "Once you clean out the intestinal tract and ink (which can be used for dishes like squid ink pasta), the tube can either be cut into calamari steaks, cut into rings or stuffed," Billo says.

Depending on what part of the country you live in, you may find squid fresh at your local fishmonger or frozen at the grocery store (sometimes whole, sometime already in rings and tentacles). Unless you are fishing yourself, the calamari you buy will already be cleaned and ready to cook. Calamari is also nutritious: It's full of copper and protein and also rich in vitamin B and vitamin C.

Squid is mild in flavor and, if cooked correctly, it should be tender and not super-tough to chew. Although we most often see calamari as that famous fried appetizer, there are actually many ways to prepare this versatile seafood. Executive Chef Eric Lees of Chicago's Italian restaurant Spiaggia says, "There are a plethora of different uses when cooking calamari — for example, in Japan, they dry it and eat as a snack or use it for sashimi, whereas in Italy we use it for fritto misto, a classic Venetian dish where it is lightly breaded and then quickly fried and served with mayonnaise."

Here are a few of the many tasty ways to prepare calamari.

Fry it or grill it

There's a reason you most often see calamari fried — it's delicious! You'll see it on the menu at Italian restaurants, steakhouses and more. It's addictive.

You'll find many classic versions served with marinara sauce. Other times calamari is tossed with chiles, as in this version (pictured above), and served with a sweet orange sauce. And, as Lees noted, it's often a part of a larger fried Italian seafood dish, fritto misto, which is served with an aioli of some sort.

If you're looking for a healthier preparation with the same satisfying crunch as the fried kind, check out this guilt-free oven-baked version.

Grilled calamari retains a ton of its nutrients and makes a great appetizer too, especially in the summer. This lemon-oregano recipe is a sure hit, as is Bobby Flay's brick-grilled version with a tamarind-mint dressing.

Braise it

Braising calamari, as in Anne Burrell's version stuffed with spinach, shrimp and herbs, allows the squid to initially toughen up and then relax again, which makes it very tender.

Lees says, "During the winter months at Spiaggia, we like to braise the calamari in tomatoes, peppers, red wine and chiles, and serve it over nice long noodle pasta."


Speaking of pasta, calamari is a great addition to any noodle dish, like this recipe that uses squid ink pasta as well as calamari and chorizo, or this mixed seafood linguine with spicy tomato sauce.

Put it in a salad or stew

The versatility of calamari makes it a great addition to a light summer salad or a hearty winter stew. This calamari, tomato and caper salad is brightened by a lemon dressing, and there are plenty of soul-warming stews that contain calamari, like this San Francisco cioppino or white seafood brodetto.

Calamari is super-versatile, and no matter what way you prepare it, it's sure to be a fan favorite at any gathering.

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