My grandmother referred to it in the singular: calamaro. I saw her prepare squid only once, in the late 1970s while visiting my parents and me from her home in Ohio. I watched Grandma while she cleaned the ugly thing, removing the body from the tentacles; cutting the body in half and then into strips. She'd already soaked the slimy pink mollusk in milk; I'd encountered it floating in a bowl in the fridge when I returned from school the day before.
Preparing it now, she sprinkled the slippery bits with flour and threw the strips of squid into hot Crisco, where they curled into little loops. Out of the grease quickly -- I've since learned that cooking squid for longer than a couple of minutes turns it into shoelaces -- and onto a paper towel, then into the grease went the squid's legs, which Grandma had cut into chunks using a pizza scissor. Once they cooled, we dipped them into jarred shrimp cocktail sauce.
In my memory, this is the best calamari I've ever eaten. I've ordered squid in many restaurants since, and if I'm often disappointed, it may well be because I'm comparing what I'm eating to what Grandma Pela prepared. Still, I continue to ask for calamari, and have found many excellent examples of it in local restaurants.
Aside from its spiny beak, pretty much all parts of a squid -- a mollusk cousin to the octopus and cuttlefish -- can be eaten. Its soft body can be sliced into thick rings or stuffed with other seafoods; its tentacles baked or fried; its ink made into sauce for pasta or white fish. Typically battercoated and flash or deepfried, calamari has become an appetizer menu staple. Properly prepared, squid meat should be firm and white, with a mildly fishy, slightly nutty flavor. Cooked too long in hot oil, calamari can be tough and chewy and a waste of time, since its subtle flavors can quickly cook away.
Among the better and more traditional, breaded-and-fried calamari frittis served with sides are those found at Avanti's, dipped in an herbed batter and paired with warm pepper-tomato marinara sauce. Harley's calamari, marinated in buttermilk and deepfried tempura style, is salty and crispy and arrives with both a spicy marinara sauce and, more memorably, a smart fra diavolo for dipping.
The Parlor claims it's serving Frito Misto, although in Italy that dish typically involves flourdipped smelt. Here, it's fried calamari and rock shrimp with lemon and romesco, and it's delicious despite its misnomer. Fez's Nazare Calamari, crusty and hot, is jolted to life by a killer side of paprika aioli.
Cashews and squid? Wildfish Seafood Grille's crispy cashew calamari, served Kung Pao style, shouldn't work. But it's a guilty pleasure, a nice blend of crunchy calamari and lightly wilted nutmeats on a bed of crisp noodles.
Second to frying, calamari is most often found stateside in salads. Crazy Jim's, a local chain, offers a pair of calamari salads: The standard is served with grilled onions and green pepper and dressed up with feta cheese, an unusual and delicious choice, while Jim's calamari picado salad is even more flavorful, accompanied by the same grilled onions and peppers, joined by diced cucumbers and tomatoes and heated up with jalapeños.
Pasta Brioni's ambitious calamari salad overpowers its main ingredient with chopped greens and vegetables, olives, and sundried tomatoes in a tootart lemon vinaigrette.
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Yen Sushi and Sake's calamari tempura is a winner -- smooth and rich; not too chewy or overpowered by the taste or texture of its crispy batter. Squid Ink Sushi Bar also offers crispy tempura calamari, quippily named Squid 'n' Nancy and served with a spicysweet honey jalapeño dip. Squid Ink's raw squid, served in nagiri and sashimi, is more to the point and frankly more tasty.
Calamari needn't be a breaded-and-fried appetizer. Sakana's calamari tempura comes as a second-rate salad: chewy rubber bands dressed with jalapenos and a bitter citrus-soy tataki dressing on a mound of limp greens. I've failed to find an adequate stuffed squid dish anywhere in town. The best of them is the delicious stuffed calamari at Scottsdale's Second Story Liquor Bar, but it's recently taken the item off the menu.
Grilled calamari is harder to master -- squid on a grill can turn to rubber in seconds if it's not properly marinated. The best of the bunch is certainly Andreoli Italian Grocer's calamaretti del sacrestano, a bargain-priced grilled squid soaked in milk and served solo (but ask for a side of Chef Giovanni's delicious red sauce for dipping). And possibly my favorite squid dish in town is Central Bistro's grilled calamari putanesca steak -- a rare seasonal treat, tender and briny, served in a generous portion with roasted tomato, capers, olives, and arugula. Just like Grandma might have made.