American Visitors Invade Peaceful Italian Lake

Procambarus Clarckii
When an invasive species changes a unique ecology forever, it's natural to lay blame. So, as two of the "good" Americans, we would like to apologize to Italy for the invasion of American Crayfish into Puccini's beloved Lake Massaciuccoli. It doesn't matter that they were introduced to the lake by Italian idiots. No, the blame lies squarely with America, just as Americans blame the British for the English Sparrows introduced to the US by American idiots in 1851, and we blamed the Japanese for Japanese Knotweed introduced by a different set of American idiots in the late 19th century. First, the peaceful Italian lake part.

Lake Massaciuccoli                                                                    Turismo / Lucca
The Lake.  Mr. Procambarus Clarckii aside, Lake Massaciuccoli is beautiful and unspoiled. This large lake (pronounced mass-a-chew-coli ) is in a  flat basin east of Viareggio in the Province of Lucca, about an hour from Florence. It is an amazing body of water - it covers about 7, its surface is below sea level, and it averages less than 7 feet deep! To a geologist, it's a delta lagoon, since it was formed long ago by the Serchio River. To the rest of us, the lake is an ever changing naturalistic wonder, a fantastic bird reserve, and an ecological marvel.

The lake is now protected as part of a gigantic park with the gigantic name of Ente Parco Regionale di Migliarino, San Rossore, Massaciuccoli. It is home to birds with fascinating names like the Purple Heron, the Western Marsh Harrier, and the rare Eurasian Bittern. Like many lakes, Massaciuccoli is in danger from human development in the form of pollution, mostly due to pesticides and fertilizer use, but you won't see any of that. Nor will you see evidence of past abuses, such as excavations for peat removal for fuel or sand removal for glass making. What you might see are canes waving in the breeze, nifty floating peat islands kept up by cannas rhizome tangles, a sunset reflected in the still waters, or sphagnum moss - typical of cold climates and found nowhere else on the Mediterranean coast.  Finally, the world's best tourists liked it here  - there was once a Roman villa and spa on  the lake -.and so will you.

Contadina sul Lago di Massaciuccoli
Tommasi Angiolo (1858-1923)                                                     Galleria Pananti

On the eastern shore is the town of Torre del Lago, which was the home of opera composer Giacomo Puccini for more than two decades . Even if you don't know beans about opera, you'll enjoy a visit to his home, now the very interesting Museo Villa Puccini. If you do know beans about opera, and you plan ahead, you can see an opera at the world renowned Puccini Festival held at the Puccini Theater on the shore of the lake in July and August.

Naturally you can also visit the lake from Torre del Lago, take a boat tour, or eat at restaurants near the lake. On a warm evening, you can enjoy a relaxed passeggiata along the Belvedere Puccini with a zillion Italians, and, if you're American (and not wearing your Stars 'n Stripes golf shirt), no one will know that your country screwed up their nice lake.

There are two visitor centers for learning and interacting with the lake and its environment. The main one is on the Massarosa side of the lake, fetchingly called the Oasis LIPU. They offer bird watching and a variety of tours, and small boaty activities. Nearby is the Roman villa, called Massaciuccoli Romana. The other center is inland on the Torre del Lago side at Villa Borbone and offers guided nature tours by reservation along the shore by foot and by bike. At this writing, the English web page is under construction, but there's info in Italian on the Villa Borbone Facebook page .

The Invasion. The American Crawfish troubles began in 1991 when the aforementioned Italian idiots imported crawfish from Spain where some Spanish idiots had imported them from Louisiana.  When the crawfish escaped (pretty much immediately) in a 1992 flood, the affordable legal defense was silence - classic omerta - and facts have been hard to come by ever since. The government began to react in 1993, but it was already too late. In 1995, there was a tremendous population explosion and the damned things were literally everywhere – in people's gardens, crushed on the roads, even in their houses! It freaked people out since they were new and they look not unlike scorpions. The press began calling them, “gamberi killer”, that is to say, killer shrimp, and another species stereotype was born. Italians are still using the term!

Museo Specola, Firenze
This little animal is known commonly as a Red Swamp Crayfish, also called a crawfish or a crawdad or, if you want to sound like an erudite Cajun, a mudbug.  It's one of several hundred crayfish species around the world, but this is indeed the one true Louisiana crawdad. In Lake Massaciuccoli the crayfish quickly caused damage with their voracious appetites and rapid reproduction. They wiped out a thriving Lotus flower industry along the lake, causing about 400 million Euro in damage since they ate the roots, killing the flowers. More lasting damage resulted when the little buggers tunneled into the embankments to make whoopee, which caused heavy erosion along the shore. Longer term, they've screwed up the food chain, which will cause unpredictable change in the complex lake ecology. For a simple example, they eat the tadpoles of frogs and toads, and that means many fewer remain to eat the larvae of mosquitoes, which in turn eat you and me.

After two decades there is now hope that an equilibrium will be reached here, even as the crayfish spread to other areas of Italy. Natural enemies of the crawfish: birds - such as the red heron, the cormorant, and the egret; fish – such as the pike (luccio); and rats (cute wild ones) have increased in numbers. Biologists are working to help the good animals defeat the bad mudbugs, and fishermen harvest a steady supply for the markets that have developed for the small but tasty crustacean.

The Food Offensive. You can help restore the balance of nature by eating lots of crawdads, since they are, after all, an itty-bitty lobster. The crayfish are appearing to a modest degree in Italian dishes including in the famous local Cacciucco, which is a Livornese fish soup that you really will want to try - with or without the American invader. The size of the tail meat makes it a natural for pasta and risotto dishes, in our gluttonous opinion.  You can find many recipes on the internet, and we put a link below to start you off. If you see them on an Italian restaurant menu, please let us know so we can do our nominal publicizing thing. (N.B. The well-known restaurant La Mora at Ponte a Moriano (LU) that offered some unique crawfish specialties has closed).

Louisiana Crawfish Boil                      Giovanni Handal photo
Our favorite way to eat them is a variation on the Louisiana crawfish boil, which we haven't encountered in Italy. This is the Asian Cajun crawfish boil. Perfected by Vietnamese-Americans starting in Houston around the year 2000, it has now spread across the US. We enjoyed them at Boston's  Brother's Crawfish after reading this article. A 'boil' uses spices to infuse the crawdad meat with flavors, and often there are dips available at the table for further seasoning. The eating methodology for either crayfish boil seems daunting at first, but within 2 minutes you'll be an expert. The technique is much simpler than eating a Maine lobster: break off the tail from the body, pinch out the tail meat, suck the juices from the head, discard remains, repeat. Remember speed counts, but the dribbles on your shirt don't. So if you are interested in starting a restaurant head for Viareggio - and it better be pronto - for these crayfish have shown they wait for nothing and nobody.

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More Info.
Parco di Migliarino, San Rossore, Massaciuccoli That links to the English portion of the Park's home page.

Oasis LIPU Visitor Center This center is in Massarosa and there are tours and canoe rentals and bird watching and Roman ruins.

Land of Puccini is the best site we saw about the composer. Even if you think you don't like opera, give two minutes to this video with pictures of Puccini along with O Mio Babbino Caro, expressing a young woman's anguish over being kept from her love..

Crayfish Recipes These non-Italian recipes for crayfish will get you started.

Thanks to the Italian website  for excellent coverage of this story, and for never once mentioning that America was responsible.

Thanks to Serena Giovannoni of Wish Versilia and all the supporters of Versilia Blog Tour 2013 for their faith in independent travel websites such as this. Who the hell knows what we might say!

Opening illustration is by Pesci e Crostacei di Acqua Dolce by Silvio Bruno via

Written by Martha