Joe Catalano tries to go to bed by 7:30 p.m. About five hours later, he hitches a ride in a delivery truck to the New Fulton Fish Market in Hunts Point. He likes to get there by 1 a.m. “There’s only so much great stuff that comes in,” he says as he passes through rows of swordfish and giant slabs of tuna. Restless, he might smack the cardboard boxes with his fish hook as he walks by, sending ice flying behind him. “That fucker never stays still!” one of the purveyors complains.
Catalano is the man behind the fish at Eli’s and the Vinegar Factory, and he’s the fish buyer for B.R. Guest Restaurants, which include Aqua Grill, Blue Fin, Ocean Grill, and others. In the market’s 400,000-square-foot refrigerator, he’s a respected fixture. Not that he’s ever stationary. Flipping through his clipboard full of orders, he scurries up and down the stalls, returning here and there to press gently on a sea bass or lay hands on a fat scallop or two. Catalano is hired for his knowledge, but he trusts his instincts. “You can tell a good fish by looking at it,” he says. “When you open the box, does it say, ‘I’m good to eat’?'”
Sometimes it seems this simple. Running his finger along a striped bass, he says, “You want the firmness. When you cut it, filet it, it doesn’t fall apart.” But there are tricks. At one point, he holds a shrimp under a visitor’s nose. “Smell the iodine? It’ll eat like iodine,” he says, tossing it back onto the pile. He offers a different shrimp, from a different pile. It smells like absolutely nothing. “That’ll eat good,” he says.
About 30 years ago, when he was 26, Catalano found himself miserable on a business trip in Milwaukee and promptly quit his job, with no plan. “I was a jerk,” he says. He started driving trucks for his brother-in-law, who owned a big shellfish company. It was just “a means to an end,” he says, but pretty soon Catalano opened his own store on the Upper East Side. “I had no knowledge of the fish business,” he recalls. “I happened to hire the right guys.”
And many of the guys he knows become pals. Not only a fish person, Catalano’s a people person. Besides pressing bass, he may even grab-ass one of his pals. “I love that guy—and he has great fish,” he says of one of his “victims.” Good relationships can lead him to some great catches. At Emerald Seafood Company’s stall, one of the guys points out John Dory, a favorite of Catalano’s. Intrigued, he asks whether any have sold. “I would never sell them,” the guy tells Catalano, “until I showed them to you.” Catalano picks out a few, and they become specials that night at a couple of the restaurants.
The “hot fish” this particular day is wild king salmon, and they’re huge. “Are you kidding me?” Catalano exclaims. “They gotta be freaking elephants. What do I need a 40-pound fish for?” The seller comes over and says he thinks the fish looks good. Catalano replies: “Great. Take it home. Feed the family!” After a few minutes, the guy says “All right, you old fart,” and magically produces some smaller fish.
“There’s always something,” Catalano later explains. “If you don’t bitch and moan, you don’t get the good stuff.”