We've been serving this classic Florentine dish for years, and it's one of the most perennially popular things on our menu. It's a weird, wild dish and one that is strangely addictive; in fact, one of our out-of-town customers regularly orders three servings whenever he can get to us, and he gobbles them blissfully, one after the other.
The origin of the word zimino (in + zimino meaning "in a sauce of zimino", hence inzimino), as with that of so many foods, lies somewhere far back in the dusty recesses of history. Under murky layers that evoke the not-so-far-away Arab world, the exotic scent of cumin (cimino in outmoded Italian parlance), or even the unleavened bread of the Jews (azzimo), the word's etymology has been the subject of some debate. The most general consensus is that zimino is of Arabic origin—samin or zamin meaning "fat, fleshy"—and is linked to the concept of a fatty or rich condiment or sauce. Moreover, the traditionally liberal use of spinach in this dish also points East, to Persia, wherein lies the august ancestry of this beloved and nourishing leafy green.
Though the precise etymology may evade our grasp, we know that the recipe itself is very old, traces of which go back at least as far as 1300. Inzimino was a classic piatto povero, or poor man's dish, one that made up for its lack of silk-purse ingredients by beefing up with vegetables and bread. Originally the dish was scattered with bits of salted, dried fish such as baccalà (salt cod; Florence being land-locked, after all)—a cheap ingredient that packed a whole lot of flavor punch and stretched to help fill many bellies at a time. The fish's strong flavor demanded an equally muscular sauce in order to achieve the proper balance; clearly something even the most impoverished medieval Florentine was unwilling to forego. And so, with characteristic Tuscan ingenuity, a richly layered and zesty sauce was born, for which the Arab word zamin was adopted and Italianized over time.
Other versions in other regions have since evolved: in Liguria, Sardinia and even Corsica. Some with chick peas instead of calamari (or totani, or seppie); or some with swiss chard instead of spinach—and they are all worthy of our praise. But the classic, über-Florentine recipe remains that of squid simmered at length in umido, a rich stew of tender squid, abundant spinach and red wine along with a bit of tomato, to be sopped up with toasted, garlic-rubbed Tuscan bread. It's a bold, inky dish—as wine-dark as Homer's Aegean—lusty and redolent of both earth and sea. Exactly the kind of thing a famished, humble laborer in the age of Petrarch would tuck into, and feel himself a richer man for having eaten it.