Although South Florida's coastal waters are filled with lionfish, it's rare to find the invasive species on local restaurant menus.
But on Tuesday, Piccolo Ristorante chef Andres Avayú will cook four lionfish tapas dishes for a tasting dinner. Each course will be paired with a different wine. Proceeds will benefit the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, aka REEF, an ocean conservation organization.
"Lionfish, for me, [is] somewhere in between hogfish and lobster," Avayú says. "It's a white-meat fish, and it's all buttery on its own
Originally from the Indo-Pacific area, the lionfish is covered in brown-and-white, zebralike stripes with dozens of spiky fins protruding from its body at odd angles. Similar to the Burmese python situation in the Everglades, lionfish were introduced to Florida's Atlantic waters by careless pet owners.
"They're really pretty fish. They're ornamental, so people want to have them in their aquariums," says Amy Lee, trips program manager with REEF. "But they eat everything. So once people realize they're eating all the other aquarium fish, they want to get rid of it. So without realizing the impact that it would have on local ecosystems, people would release them into the water here."
Lionfish have no predators in the Atlantic, so they reproduce fast. An adult lionfish can grow close to 20 inches.
"We've seen them up and down the coast of Florida," Lee says. "They actually were reported as far north as Cape Cod in Massachusetts. And they're all over the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. We see them eat a lot of fish that have ecological and environmental and even economical importance over here. They eat a lot of juvenile snapper, and grouper, and those are some really big fisheries in this area."
The fish is also venomous, so cleaning it can be a challenge. Avayú learned to clean lionfish by watching YouTube videos and live demonstrations at the Tortuga Music Festival in Fort Lauderdale.
"It's a lot easier than you think, but you do have to take quite a few cautions," Avayú says. "It's nothing to do with the meat. You have to watch with the end of the barbs that contain venom."
Avayú's lionfish courses at Piccolo Ristorante will follow four styles: Italian Mediterranean, Asian, Caribbean and American. Representatives from REEF and the Dive Bar Organization, a marine-adventure and -conservation group, will be on hand to discuss the lionfish's threat to the environment.
The Lionfish Tasting Dinner will begin 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 27, at Piccolo Ristorante, 2826 E. Commercial Blvd., in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $65. Call 954-776-8066 or go to PiccoloFL.com or TheDiveBar.org.