A Voce's chef falls in love with the fresh flavor of sea urchin and its sweet, floral roe

Some romances take a little extra time to develop. Such was the case with A Voce’s executive chef Missy Robbins and her now-beloved sea urchin. Upon first meeting, Robbins was not all that impressed with the prickly, hard-shelled crustacean. At the time, she was working in Chicago under the guidance of celebrated chef Tony Mantuano at his four-star restaurant Spiaggia — a favorite of the Obamas. But one day Mantuano, who had just returned from a trip to Sicily, had a new idea for the unique ingredient. He suggested that his staff shell live sea urchins to order and serve the roe with pasta. Still, Robbins resisted. “You want me to open live sea urchins?” she asked. But once she tasted the bright orange-hued roe, something shifted. “It was like nothing else I’ve had before,” she says. “When you take it out of the shell itself, it’s alive, fresh and amazing.”

Like anything precious, it isn’t so easy to find. Robbins can’t always get her hands on the live variety of quality (mostly that’s due to the rough weather divers face, making it difficult for them to be plucked from the depths of the ocean). The East Coast breed, she says, is much smaller and lacks the incredibly fresh flavor, so she sources hers from Wild Edibles, which gets them from Santa Barbara, California, whenever possible.

Missy Robbins, A Voce

Executive chef Missy Robbins puts the finishing touches on her beloved sea urchin dish.

At A Voce, Robbins has an ongoing affair with sea urchin, often reinventing it into many different interpretations like the light and summery crudo with olive oil, orange zest and fennel pollen. For now, she’s featuring it in a tribute to when her romance first began; in a pasta dish.

To prepare sea urchin, Robbins advises dipping it in water and constantly changing it out until it is “super” clean. To avoid overcooking, Robbins also recommends adding the roe at the very last minute — and tossing it lovingly, of course.