The origin of the word zimino (in + zimino signifying “in ‘zimino’ sauce”), 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 parlance), or even the unleavened (azzimo) bread of the Jews–the word’s etymology has been the subject of some debate. The most general consensus is that the word is of Arabic origin: samin or zamin, which means fat, fleshy and seems linked to the concept of a fatty or rich condiment or sauce. Moreover, the traditional liberal use of spinach in this dish would also seem to point east, to Persia: wherein lies the august ancestry of this inky-green vegetable.
Though the precise etymology may evade our grasp, we know that the recipe is very old, traces of which go back at least as far as 1300. It was a classic piatto povero, or poor-man’s dish, making up for its lack of silk-purse ingredients by beefing up with vegetables and bread. Originally, the dish was strewn with bits of salted, dried fish such as baccalà (Florence being land-locked, after all)–a cheap ingredient that packed a flavor punch and stretched to help fill many bellies at a time. It is believed that the strong flavor of the fish demanded an equally muscular, spicy sauce in order to achieve the proper balance–clearly something even the most impoverished medieval Florentine was unwilling to forego. And so, with characteristic Italian ingenuity, a rich, zesty sauce was born–for which the Arab word zamin was most likely 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 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 a rich stew (or umido) of spinach, tomato and red wine, to be accompanied by garlic-rubbed toasted bread and–hopefully, ideally–shared in good company. It’s a bold, inky dish–as wine-dark as Homer’s Aegean–lusty and redolent of both earth and sea. It’s exactly the kind of thing a famished, humble laborer in the age of Petrarch would tuck into, and feel a richer man for having eaten it.
–by Elizabeth Petrosian
Come and try our version of this Florentine classic–ti aspettiamo!