Hot food: Al cartoccio

Jill Dupleix
A bag of shellfish with irresistible aromas.
A bag of shellfish with irresistible aromas. Photo: Steven Siewert

What is it?

The Italian term for baking food enclosed in paper or foil (the French term is en papillote). Traditionally used for cooking delicate fish, it's increasingly popular with chicken, vegetables, pasta and even fruit desserts, because it is effectively its own little steamer, sealing in all the natural flavours and aromas.

Where is it?

At Bistro Gitan in South Yarra, co-owner Ed Reymond says snapper or hapuka en papillote with orange and fennel is one of their most regular specials. "We seal it with little wooden pegs that the customer takes off at the table," he says.

"It's a great technique because it retains all the juices and keeps the flavours together."

The linguine di mare al cartoccio at South Yarra's Caffe e Cucina turned 25 years old in August this year, starring on the blackboard menu since the restaurant opened in 1988. "We could never take it off," senior chef Leonardo Bohorquez says. "It's such a nice surprise when you unwrap it at the table like a present, and the aromatics, the seafood and the tomato all rush out."

The cleverest use of cartoccio technique goes to chef-owner Rob Kabboord, of Northcote's Merricote, who wraps seasonal fruit, such as beurre bosc pears, in paper with sweetly spiced pain d'epice for a spectacular open-at-the-table dessert. "I love the theatre of it," he says. "It steams as it bakes, really concentrating the flavours."

At Woollahra’s Buzo Trattoria, head chef Chad Muir wraps a small, whole wheel of Piemontese tomino cheese with confit garlic cloves and thyme in baking paper and bakes it for eight minutes at 250C until the cheese is meltingly soft. “It’s insanely popular,” he says. “The cheese is soft and gooey and all those nice vapours whoosh out at the table and go up your nose.”

At North Bondi Italian, the seaside crowd goes for Rob Marchetti’s spaghetti with spanner crab, tomato sauce and chilli ‘‘al cartoccio’’,  baked in a paper bag.
Fulvio Lancione, chef of the new Hello Sailor bar in Darlinghurst, says baking in  paper is the best way to trap all the moisture and flavours and not lose them. “We’ve done it with snapper and tomato couscous, with olives, capers and lots of basil,” he says. “It’s great because the cous cous absorbs all the juices inside the bag”. His tip for doing it at home? “Wait for the bag to puff up like a balloon, then you know the steam is doing its job.”

Why do I care?

It's the do-it-yourself steamer - fast, healthy, and fun.


Can I do this at home?

No degree in origami is required - just baking paper and/or foil.

Sourcing it


Bistro Gitan, 52 Toorak Road West, South Yarra, 9867 5853.

Caffe e Cucina, 581 Chapel Street, South Yarra, 9827 4139

Merricote, 81 High Street, Northcote, 9939 4762


North Bondi Italian Food, 118 Ramsgate Avenue, North Bondi, 9300 4400

Hello Sailor, 96 Oxford Street (rear, enter from Foley Lane), 9332 2442

Buzo Trattoria, 3 Jersey Road, Woollahra, 9328 1600

A bag of shellfish

200g clams

200g mussels

200g canned white beans or chickpeas, drained

4 raw prawns, peeled or unpeeled

8 cherry tomatoes, halved

1 small red chilli, sliced

10 small black olives

2 garlic cloves, finely sliced

3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

80ml white wine

Sea salt and pepper

Handful of parsley leaves

Extra virgin olive oil for serving

1. Soak the clams and mussels in cold water for an hour.

2. Heat the oven to 225C.

3. To make two oven bags, take two 50-centimetre-long sheets of wide kitchen foil, and fold in half so they join end to end. Crimp the sides together to seal, leaving the top open. Loosely line the inside with a sheet of baking paper.

4. Drain the clams and mussels, and debeard the mussels.

5. Toss with the prawns, beans, cherry tomatoes, olives, chilli, garlic, olive oil, white wine, sea salt and pepper, and divide between the two parcels.

6. Crimp the tops to seal, place on a baking tray and bake for 15 minutes or until the bags puff up. To serve, scatter with parsley, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and serve.

Serves 2