What does an Italian brigand, who lived between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have to do with a simple lobster?
Nothing, but there is a recipe called “Fra Diavolo lobster” (Devil brother Lobster in Italian) which is very popular overseas.
Despite this, in Italy, it is hardly known and basically impossible to find in restaurants. So, just to immediately answer your question, no, we do not eat Fra Diavolo lobster in our country.
In this article, we will find out where this weird name comes from and why it looks like an Italian dish, but it is not.
Fra Diavolo lobster: an Italian-American recipe that never arrived in Italy
I doubt that entering an Italian restaurant you could order a Fra Diavolo lobster without seeing a question mark painted on the faces of the waiters.
It is a course that contains the name of an Italian but that just reminds Italy: as has often happened, it is the offspring of nostalgia and migration, thus merging two cuisines and cultures.
Basically, it seems that some Italians, who arrived in America in the nineteenth century, revolutionized a traditional recipe based on chicken (transposed as “pollo Fra Diavolo”, but that, actually, is called “pollo alla diavola”!) with a variant where the protagonist was the lobster: an ingredient which, in their native country, was unavailable at the time to the more modest social groups and which, on the other hand, overseas was decidedly more available, abundant and even bigger in size.
And this is how the Fra Diavolo lobster was born, then proposed in the Italian restaurants opened around the New World, which acted as an “amplifier”.
Nowadays, this dish has become part of the local gastronomic culture, but it makes me smile that it has such a weird and incoherent name, born from a chain of mistakes.
Mr. Fra Diavolo, whose story I will tell you below, has absolutely nothing to do with all of this: probably, everything comes from a bad translation of the appellative “alla diavola” on some menus but, since it is still an Italian character, someone will have thought that the combination made sense: and so it was that a bandit with a very complicated life ended up finding himself in American cookbooks next to the large lobsters to be stripped.
The coincidences of life!
The funny thing is that many Americans think that “Fra Diavolo” can be translated as “among the devil” in reference to the chili present among the ingredients of the recipe: every time I think about it, I burst out laughing.
In relation to this, there is an Italian “equivalent” of this course: linguine with lobster, where the chili pepper is not contemplated. If you are in Italy and, after reading this article, you are disappointed to not find Fra Diavolo lobster easily, dry your tears and taste a dish of linguine with lobster, a pasta that will not make you regret Fra Diavolo lobster at all.
But, who was this Mr Fra Diavolo in Italy?
Fra Diavolo was the nickname of Michele Arcangelo Pezza, a child born at the end of the eighteenth century in the Kingdom of Naples. It was his teacher who gave him this nickname, inspired by his lack of desire to study and his mother’s habit of dressing him like a friar to respect a vow which, in her opinion, had saved her son from a very bad illness.
You should know that “Fra” is the abbreviation of “Fratello” which means brother, it is the way priests and friars are called.
However, that epithet soon proved to be perfectly fitting: during a heated argument, in fact, a young Fra Diavolo killed his employer and his brother, who had threatened him with revenge. From that moment, he began a wandering life which led him to meet several brigands with whom, over the years, he earned respect, as if he were their chief.
In the meantime, he asked that the sentence for the double murder committed be commuted to military service: the request was accepted and, since then, a second life began for Fra Diavolo. However, once he became aware of what it meant to invade and conquer cities, amidst violence and abuses, despite the title of colonel, he moved away from that world and approached the brigand’s one.
He led several revolts against the advance of the French in the Kingdom of Naples and took part in popular riots and insurrections.
But there were not only victories: when, in the end, he was taken prisoner, he was executed in Naples. His body was visible for many hours, as a warning to the entire population.
As you can see the complicated life of this Italian brigand has nothing to do with lobsters or spicy dishes, but then why has he been associated with the Fra Diavolo lobster?
The evolutions of Fra Diavolo lobster
Using Italian words, or rather an Italian name, in this recipe has served to give an aura of genuineness and Italianness; an added value which is not exactly correct, as we have seen.
Its main ingredients, in addition to lobster, are:
- Extra virgin olive oil;
- Crushed red pepper;
All ingredients that can effectively indicate the identity of an Italian dish, a pity that it is not served here.
An identity that, over time, has changed, “giving birth” to variations and imitations, by involving other components. For example, there are Fra Diavolo calamari which are prepared in the same way with the addition of half a glass of red wine.
There are even alternative proposals based on pasta: after the war, people began to season it with the sauce used for this course, to which lobster was added, once it was taken out of its shell or the cheaper crabmeat.
Fra Diavolo recipes even at Christmas? Not in Italy
In Italy, the holidays related to Christmas and Easter are much longer than in other countries. And, on each of these special days, there is a traditional menu.
This ritual habit was also transferred abroad by my immigrant compatriots and it is exactly for this reason that, on the Christmas Eve’s tables of many Italian-Americans, it is very easy to find Fra Diavolo lobster (or some of its variants, especially the one based on pasta), in order to respect the tradition of the fish dinner expected for this occasion.
However, as I explained to you above, in Italy there is no trace of any dish with sauce fra diavolo, not even around Christmas.
In short, we must be quiet: we have not brought the devil to the Christmas table, I hope it is clear now that we explained so well!