Italian-Style Whole Roasted Fish in Herbs (Pesce al forno)

A whole roast fish with rosemary and herbs
A whole roast fish with rosemary and herbs Philippe Desnerck/Getty Images
Prep: 15 mins
Cook: 10 mins
Total: 25 mins

Roasting a whole fish is a procedure more than a recipe, and will work well with any sort of fish that takes well to being roasted.

Fish availability changes remarkably from place to place; in the Italian seas the fish most prized for roasting are branzini, orate, saraghi, spigole, dentice, and cefali -- According to Alan Davidson's Mediterranean Seafood (Penguin Books), these are sea bass, gilt-head bream, dentex, two-banded bream, and gray mullet.

Because of bones, skin, and such, you should figure about one pound of fish per diner. Have your fishmonger clean and scale the fish for you.
When you get home, wash the fish well, inside and out, and pat it dry. 

If you are wondering about how to pair your roasted fish with wine, there are those who like a red with this sort of fish, but I continue to prefer white. If the fish is flavorful, a Sauvignon Blanc, Tocai, or Chardonnay from Friuli will be nice, and will a Trebbiano from the Abruzzo. If it's more delicate, I might go with a Vermentino from Tuscany or Liguria.

[Edited by Danette St. Onge]


  • 1 whole fish (allow 1 pound (500 g) of fish per person)
  • Fresh herbs and seasonings of choice (Exactly which you use are up to you, but the list can include any ​of: lemon wedges, sliced garlic, sprigs of fresh thyme, sprigs of fresh rosemary, fresh parsley, olive oil, or whatever non-traditionally Italian herbs or spices you may prefer.)​

Steps to Make It

Preheat your oven to 420 F (210 C).

  1. Salt the cavity of the fish and slip a little of the herb mixture you've settled on into it (say, a sprig of rosemary and a small wedge of lemon).

  2. Rub the fish with olive oil and salt them, then lay them in a roasting pan large enough for them to lie flat, and not touching. If you are using rosemary slip a sprig under each fish, then lay another on top, together with several thin slices of lemon and some garlic, if you're using it.

  3. Sprinkle well with oil, note how thick the fish are at their thickest point, and put them into the oven. Roast for about 10 minutes per inch (2.5 cm) of thickness; the fish will be done when the eyes are completely white and the flesh near the backbone is no longer translucent but flakes easily when prodded with a toothpick. You will probably want to turn the fish (gently) once about half-way through the roasting time.