A few months ago, I was in a Chinatown fish market when an oldish man came in. He had made a trip into Manhattan to visit the fishmonger he has been loyal to for most of his adult life. Well, not the exact fishmonger. Originally, the shop was in Little Italy, but although it hasn’t moved, it’s now Chinese. All the same, he popped a raw scallop into his mouth to verify its freshness and cracked jokes while a live tillapia was caught, weighed, bludgeoned to death, and scaled.
In New York’s other, better, Little Italy, the reverse is more common. As the neighbors change, the food stays largely the same. Italian shop owners, many who have inherited a family business three or four generations old, carry the same imported and homemade specialties, but their customers are no longer all related by blood or marriage. Sal Biancardi, a fourth generation butcher at Biancardi Meats said recently “The Italians have moved on, for the most part. They are always back for the holidays, and about every two weeks to stock up their freezers. But now it’s the Albanians and other Eastern Europeans, and they are starting to leave, too. Next it’s the Mexicans.” When I asked whether this evolution had forced him to tailor the selection, he said, “It’s only a matter of the cut—who wants it thinner, who wants it thicker. The animal is the animal.”
Sal Biancardi chews the fat.
I was on a food shopping tour with a neighborhood celebrity, Roberto Paciullo, 52, whose restaurant, Roberto’s, was number two on our very own Robert Sietsema’s “100 Best Italian Restaurants“. It was a stroll through a village, really, and instead of being a tourist, I was family—without being introduced, without handshakes, business cards, or explanations that I was writing an article. More important things were immediately discussed just because I was at Roberto’s side. Some questions included “You like fresh clams?” and “You want to try some homemade soppresata?” and “You want to see where we make the mozzarella?” The answers were clearly yes, yes, and God, yes.
My first meal of the day was at least eight or nine littleneck clams on the half shell with lemon juice (some with hot sauce), shucked before my eyes outside Randazzo’s Seafood. I have had fresh clams only once before that came close to these—on a beach about a half hour outside of Rome, where my father and I impressed the fishermen, who expected Americans to be too timid to appreciate such fare. Like those, the clams at Randazzo’s were plump and without a hint of fish. The meat was silky, lacked any chewiness, but was not slimy or soft. Like the fishermen, Roberto was pleased when I took the last one. He said, “Ha, I’m glad you like them! A lot of women don’t.” Later, four African American pre-teenaged boys meandered over to the makeshift bar and ordered a dozen clams. While they were being shucked, they perused the branzino, red shrimp, and squid inside. So many kids (and adults) are afraid of new foods, especially fish, but they seemed to discover the foreign with an easy openness.
At Casa Della Mozzarella, a narrow shop featuring fresh mozzarella, we pushed through waiting customers to get to an open back room where we tasted bocconcini, bite-sized knots of mozzarella, which are either unsalted or dipped in salt water. (We had the salt). A lot of Americans think of mozzarella as nearly tasteless, and admire it for mostly in its stringy, melted incarnation. Here, they can learn the truth: mozzarella is subtle, but has a very distinct tangy taste. At Casa Della Mozzarella, it is extremely moist inside and just a tiny bit firmer at the edges. As we were leaving, I told Roberto how great it was to be seeing his favorite markets. He corrected me: “This is not my ‘favorite,’ this is the best mozzarella in New York.”