The name mantis shrimp is actually a misnomer because despite their appearance, the animals aren't shrimp at all, some actually categorize them in the crab realm. They don't resemble crabs either, but much rather their namesake, the mantis, and are equally ferocious predators.
Mantis shrimps are highly aggressive and solitary crustaceans that capture prey using large, raptorial claws much like those of a praying mantis. Many are beautifully colored in neon shades of red, green and blue. The Italian Adriatic variety is grayish pink and sports a second decoy set of eyes on its frayed tail, to throw off its prey before lobbing it unconscious.
Called "sea locusts", "prawn killers" and "shako", mantis shrimp are sometimes referred to as "thumb splitters" by divers – because of the relative ease the creature has in mutilating small appendages. Italians dub these feisty little creatures a variety of names: pannocchie, cicale di mare, cannocchie, spannocchie, balestrin... whatever the name, they sport powerful claws that they use to attack and kill prey by spearing, stunning, clubbing or dismembering. The "punch" delivered has roughly the acceleration of a .22 caliber bullet. Not joking. Mantis shrimp easily break through shellfish and have been known to crack aquarium glass with a single strike from their lethal weapon.
In Mediterranean countries the Squilla mantis is common seafood, especially on Adriatic Sea coasts. Inexpensive and available year round, the best time to eat it – when the crustacean is the plumpest – is between March and November.
This particular Trieste recipe stars our belligerent spearers, locally called canoce.
- 1 kg (2.2 lbs) mantis shrimp (if you have difficulty finding them, opt for the sweetest shrimp or prawns you can get your claws on)
- 2 glasses of white wine (one's for drinking while you cook)
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- A bunch of flat leaf Italian parsley
- 1/2 cup breadcrumbs
- Extra virgin olive oil
Cut an incision lengthwise down the shrimp's belly, this will release flavor compounds leaving the flesh safely lodged in the carapace armor plates. Do not remove heads, they add flavor.
Sauté the minced garlic in 2-3 tbsp of olive oil, when the garlic starts to tan, add the breadcrumbs and parsley. Stir a bit and add your shell fiends. Pour in the wine, crank up the heat and boil it to evaporation.
If you have some leftover fish stock, either frozen or standing by, a few drops can add even more flavor. Regain a medium simmer, cover and cook over low heat for no more than 7 minutes. Serve immediately, with plenty bread to sop up the juices.
Now it's your turn to dismember, suck, bite off and give a dignified finale to the bellicose sea warriors. Nutcrackers, lobster picks, chicken shears and a large bib may come in handy.