On a gleaming summer morning, Louis Rozzo steps out the door of a four-story stuccoed building on Ninth Avenue in Chelsea. The neighborhood has transformed from its mid-nineteenth-century beginnings as the epicenter of the city’s meat, produce, and dairy industries, and today the street, lined with apartment buildings, coffee shops, and restaurants, seems an unlikely location for a wholesale seafood operation. But this exact spot has been the headquarters of F. Rozzo and Sons (159 Ninth Avenue; 212-242-6100) since Rozzo’s great-grandfather Felix moved his eponymous business here in 1924.
On the sidewalk just outside, Rozzo greets neighbors by name as they pass by on their way to work, and when two elderly women wander onto the wet cement floor in the front workroom, curious about buying some fish, he urges them inside.
A few guys, wearing yellow floor-length plastic aprons and waterproof boots, are still at work cleaning, scaling, and portioning salmon into heavy-duty brown cardboard boxes. It’s close to 10 a.m. but Rozzo and his crew are nearing the tail end of a full day’s work, one that started in the wee hours of the morning. “I love what I do,” Rozzo tells the Voice, “but the hardest part of my job is getting out of bed.”
That Rozzo has a passion for his work is as clear as the blue sea in Sorrento — in fact that phrase, “I love what I do,” seems a comfortable refrain for him; he repeats it numerous times during several conversations.
Rozzo was literally born into the fish business — as a new baby, the future fishmonger was promptly brought to the store by his parents from his birthplace at nearby St. Vincent’s hospital, and “weighed on the same scale they used to weigh the sea scallops.”
Today, F. Rozzo supplies fresh seafood to hundreds of NYC restaurants and top-tier hotels like the Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, and the Carlyle. If you’ve ever had the gustatory good fortune to savor the fluke sashimi at Nobu, an oven-baked black sea bass at Daniel, or the whole boneless porgy at Momofuku Ssäm Bar, it’s very likely that the seafood was locally sourced, carefully packaged, and delivered to the restaurant in a white van with the F. Rozzo and Sons logo displayed on its sides.
In 1990, Rozzo stepped up to take his place as a fourth-generation seafood supplier, a legacy started by his great-grandfather, an Italian immigrant from Naples who gave up his initial job as a ditch digger to start peddling fish at the turn of the last century. Rozzo was preceded at the helm by his father, Felix, and his grandfather Louis.
It’s a tremendous amount of dining history to bear witness to: When the elder “Champagne Louis” was running the show in the 1950s, they were supplying fish during a heyday for New York restaurants the likes of which Frank Sinatra and his celebrity ilk preferred to frequent; think 21 Club and Delmonico’s. When Louis’s son Felix took over in 1962, he secured business relationships with the preeminent French chefs of the day — it was the prime era of Henri Soulé and Pierre Franey at Le Pavillon and Andre Soltner of Lutece.
As New York City dining tastes have evolved over the past 100 years, the business has adapted to serve them. “Years ago, restaurants and hotels wanted their fish whole,” Rozzo explains. “Now they want their fish butchered, filleted, pinboned-out; they want them skinned. They rely on us to do a lot of the work.”
By noontime most days of the week, thousands of pounds of seafood and hundreds of orders have been processed and delivered; many of those — especially for the hotels — are out the door by 7 a.m. “We start at midnight — we really don’t close,” Rozzo says. “I used to have an answering machine at night; that machine became a two-hour process in the morning. About five years ago, we changed to having an actual person answering the phone all night, taking orders.”
Much of Rozzo’s work involves keeping his demanding chef and hotel clients happy. “I’m in the service industry,” he says, “so whatever they want, I try to deliver. I’m buying the freshest fish I can possibly buy.” He employs a small but intensely dedicated crew, and training them to execute orders flawlessly is a priority. “The most important guys I have here are the fillet guys, and they are making sure the fish is packaged and filleted perfectly. I’m depending on them to get a high margin on the fish — no waste, in other words. We also try, when we handle fish, to make sure it’s iced and stored right away, and we deliver it properly in refrigerated vans.”
F. Rozzo’s location is also key: “It’s a great spot — most fish guys moved to [the new Fulton Fish] Hunt’s Point market. We’re the only fish market still located in Manhattan — which makes us very serviceable.” Rozzo’s hotel customers, especially, can depend on him for quick, last-minute service: “I get a lot of calls from the hotels for second deliveries.” Although 90 percent of his business is in the city, the shop also overnights orders to restaurants in Las Vegas, to chefs he’s personally built relationships with in New York. “We don’t have any salesmen — I’m the only salesman. Word of mouth between chefs really gets me my business,” he says.
The other part of his job involves keeping up to date on the regulations and restrictions that now prevail in an industry that, over the last decade, has seen a shift toward sustainability. “My job is to educate the chefs; we need to make sure what we take from the ocean now, we still leave enough for future generations,” Rozzo explains.
And, of course, chefs do have a certain influence over the trends that come and go with the dining public. Over the years, Rozzo says he’s noticed that chefs are more willing to try different things, and there’s more interest in serving local seafood: “I get these fish four or five hours out of the water — really local sushi fluke, monkfish from Barnegat Light in New Jersey, porgies from Montauk, Long Island. A lot of younger chefs, if something’s abundant, fresh, different — they want it. I’m selling a lot of porgy now. You would never see porgy on the menu five years ago. David Chang had a lot to do with it.” Rozzo continues, “It is a beautiful local fish, but it used to be considered a ‘poor man’s’ fish.”
Getting the best possible seafood direct from the source also means Rozzo must maintain relationships with fishermen: “It’s a matter of trust; if they call me up and they tell me they have sea bass and I’ve done business with them before, I’ll buy the whole boat.”
This summer, Rozzo employed one of his two sons, who was home from college. “Seeing now the fifth generation working here gives me such an amount of pride for my family. I love what I do, I love the challenges every day, I love the relationships with the chefs and eating in their restaurants,” Rozzo says.
After a lifetime of experience, early mornings, and handling plenty of cold fish, Rozzo seems completely in his element; the family business is woven into the net of the neighborhood and the ever-changing city around it.
“I always encourage visitors to come by — even if it’s the sardines I bring in from Greece, the monkfish from Long Island, tilefish from New Jersey — I love showing it off.”