Three days later, my phone still smelled like fish, and with every call, text, and Instagram check, I was taken back to a very early morning spent in the industrial outskirts of the Bronx.
The New Fulton Fish Market is one of the largest fish markets in the world (Tsukiji in Tokyo tops the list), an open secret to most New Yorkers. For years, it was a hub of the city, operating on South Street in downtown Manhattan, starting sometime in the 1820’s. In 2005, the city spent just shy of $90 million to move it within sight of the barbed wire surrounding Rikers island, in Hunts Point.
It was a Monday, around 2 a.m., and Pat Zollo of Metropolitan Fish Market and I were running around the 400,000 square foot building housing the market. We chatted loudly under the bright fluorescent lights, a half-inch of fish water under our boots, while Zollo placed orders for the week. With dozens of fish wholesaler stalls, each specializing in different cuts and species, this NYC market is just what you would expect it to be — the forklifts zooming by every few seconds make it feel busy and fast-paced.
“This is a friend of mine — Tony Crab,” Zollo said. I shook Crab’s hands, weathered and thick like a sirloin steak. Crab gestured toward a large bushel of oysters.“They look nice don’t they?”
“Let me get a bushel. Just bring it around to my truck,” Zollo replied. After 20-plus years working the market, he relates to each fishmonger and wholesaler the very same way.
“What the hell are you doing here so early, Pat?” one fish seller quipped.
A few stalls over, in between piles of fresh porgies stacked in cardboard boxes, Steve Perry belted out “As the lights go down in the city” from a portable radio. I was offered a cannoli chip from another close friend of Pat’s, a man later introduced as Bobby Tuna, as he sliced open a large headless…tuna.
We power-walked to the next stall, where huge boxes of crabs seemed to dance inside their wet wooden crates, beside oysters still pulsating in their gnarly shells. Sea urchin from Maine (small and green) and from California (large and black) were displayed a few feet away. The seafood had been shipped here just hours ago.
When the fish market was based in Manhattan, scores of local residents would come here and buy seafood at wholesale prices. Nowadays, a few tourists visit in the early dawn hours. Anyone off the street can come and buy fish directly, but most vendors ask for an order of at least $100. Reflecting on the times, one fishmonger remarked “who the hell is coming out here to the Bronx?”
Over at the Montauk Seafood stall, where they sell something like 40 tons of seafood in one day, Zollo looked over bushels of Belon oysters, direct from the Damariscotta River in Maine. Belons are expensive oysters, at $125 a bushel — a typical bushel of oysters sells in the $50 range. The resident oyster expert for Montauk, Patrick O’Toole, dressed in the customary fish-market uniform of a thick hoodie and jeans, talked about his current favorite oyster, Sweetnecks from Martha’s Vineyard, and their “firm and sweet” finish. “Now that’s an oyster!” he proclaimed, after a five minute discussion on their brilliance.
A few minutes later I was introduced to Joe Tuna (no relation to Bobby) and watched while Zollo bought ten pounds of fresh blowfish tails, direct from North Carolina. “The chicken of the sea, my customers love them.” Not to worry, I was told, they were not of the poisonous persuasion.
After a few more cartons of ice were brought to Zollo’s white van, we were on our way back to Williamsburg, with five boxes of oysters (about 500 count), 50 pounds of stone crabs, 10 pounds of spearings, 10 pounds of blowfish tails and 2 cases of fresh Norwegian salmon. Just another day at the market.