A Favorite Italian Seafood Salad (+ A Trick for *Really* Getting Octopus Tender)

July 26, 2016

Summer in Italy, to Italians, means time spent by the sea, browning in the sun, long evening walks to the local gelateria, and eating fresh seafood. If you don't already live by the sea, it's the escape plan for most city-dwellers.

Octopus and potato salad, polpo e patate, is a favorite dish all along the Italian coast. You can find it in practically every Tuscan and Ligurian port. And it's just the thing for beating the warm weather: You can prepare it the night before, maybe the only time cool enough to cook in the kitchen, and the next day you'll be thankful that you already have lunch ready when you come home from the beach, starved.

Octopus! Photo by Emiko Davies

There are many, many ways Italians will tell you to cook an octopus, with plenty of tricks and secrets to getting it meltingly tender. The most famous is to boil the octopus together with a wine cork, an age-old tradition that the majority of home cooks don't like to deviate from (my brother-in-law's nonna won't ever try making it any other way). The myth appears to have come about because polpari, or octopus vendors, along the ports of Puglia and Sicily were known to cook octopus in the open in huge vats of boiling water, with a cork tied to each one so you could easily pull them out. Somehow people began to believe that it was the corks ensuring tender octopus and not the slow, long cooking.

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Others swear by vinegar, sea water, or pummelling the beast (or bashing it on a rock) to break down the fibers before putting in the pot. But a very wise, easy, and guaranteed tenderiser is to simply freeze the fresh octopus the day before you want to cook it and then defrost it. Freezing also breaks down the fibers, ensuring a wonderfully tender result every time. I also like to let the octopus simmer in its own juices, helped along by just a glass of wine, rather than boil it in a pot of water.

Photo by Emiko Davies

The general rule with octopus is to either cook it very little (flash searing) or cook long enough that it gives way and becomes incredibly soft. If you have a larger octopus, 45 to 60 minutes usually suffice. But baby octopus cooks in a much shorter time—20 minutes can be plenty.

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Top Comment:
“Thanks for the tips Emiko , Love it with potatoes , love it as sushi, love it in a seafood salad, love it on the grill.. I usually buy the legs., do you use the head also? ”

Once cooled and chopped into pieces, it makes the delicious salad with potato, thinly-sliced celery, a handful of parsley, and a dressing of extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice. Eat it warm, at room temperature, or chilled—my favorite way on a hot day.

Emiko, a.k.a. Emiko Davies, is a food writer and cookbook author living in Tuscany, where she writes about (and eats!) regional Italian foods. You can read more of her writing on her blog.

Share your own octopus cooking tips in the comments below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Renato Pereira De Bulhoes
    Renato Pereira De Bulhoes
  • PHIL
  • 702551
  • Emiko
The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.


Renato P. August 3, 2016
I use a pressure cooker with a big onion (without onionskin) for some minutes. No water, just onion and the octopus (or squid). I think 10 minutes is OK.
PHIL July 26, 2016
Thanks for the tips Emiko , Love it with potatoes , love it as sushi, love it in a seafood salad, love it on the grill.. I usually buy the legs., do you use the head also?
702551 July 26, 2016
In her recipe's headnotes, she comments on this. Yes, you can use the head after you've removed the eyes, beak and innards (just like squid, which also requires the removal of the quill). If you buy from a store, the octopi will usually be cleaned by the fishmonger. You need to do the cleaning yourself if you buy directly from a fisherman's boat.

I find the octopus legs to be more flavorful, so if you are buying frozen, you might as well just stick to those.
PHIL July 26, 2016
just curious because I never ate the head, nor have I seen it in any restaurant I have eaten it in. I guess you just chop it up?
702551 July 26, 2016
Yeah, just chop up the head into bite-sized pieces.
Emiko July 27, 2016
Yes, well the head's not the most attractive part of the octopus but, as in so much Italian cooking, no reason to let a good thing go to waste! It's perfectly edible and tasty too! You just chop it up into similar size pieces as the legs.