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Perfect calamari without a deep-fryer or grill in sight

On the east coast of the Adriatic, squid is simply sautéed

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Few people realize that agile squid are, in fact, shell-less mollusks and distant cousins of mussels, scallops, and clams.

But squid is rarely prepared so that it tastes as delicate and mouthwatering as fresh steamers or pan-seared scallops. In most restaurants, and, I'm sad to say, my own kitchen, it's often rubbery and nearly tasteless, a textured complement to whatever else it was cooked with. Many eateries simply toss it in the deep-fryer and let salt, oil, and tartar sauce take over from there.

But here on the eastern coast of the Adriatic, squid finally gets its due.

From the cobbled streets of Kotor to the snowcapped mountains of Slovenia, even the lowliest bistro serves a calamari dish that's delicate, tasty, and straightforward. The people of Yugoslavia disagree about a lot of things, but when it comes to squid they're all on the same page: Cook it quickly, they say, with olive oil garlic, and basil and serve it with wedges of lemon.

For nearly two decades, restaurateur Leo Licof has been serving traditional- style calamari to diners at Okarina in Bled, Slovenia, long regarded as one of the best restaurants in the region.

"It's simple to prepare, but is praised by our guests," says Mr. Licof, who learned the technique decades ago while working on the island of Hvar on Croatia's Dalmatian coast.

The people of Hvar and other parts of the eastern Adriatic honed their squid recipes out of necessity.

These days, tourism draws hordes of visitors to the Croatian and Montenegrin coasts, where picturesque Venetian-style towns perch between stunning mountains and bright shining sea. But 50 years ago, there was little tourism, and the people of Dalmatia and the Bay of Kotor were extremely poor.

"It was a starving place, worse than Ireland," says Licof, recalling the stories told to him by old-timers in the early 1970s. "Peasants often had no boats and were dependent on fish that came close to shore like calamari."

You can usually catch cleaned squid at supermarket fish counters. This saves the inconvenience of cleaning them. But if not, here's how it's done: (1) Remove the innards and plastic-like quill from each body. (2) Cut the tentacles just beneath the eye and, if you find a hard beak attached, remove it. (3) Rinse and retain the tentacles and now-hollow body piece and discard the rest.


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