I used to throw a crab feast every other year in New York. Each time, I went to Fulton Market around 4 am the night before to pick up the 1-3 bushels of Maryland crabs I’d ordered in advance from a guy named Pepe. The market ― rare for its sales volume in the US ― was an adventure all its own, made wilder to a layman like myself since the vendors did not cater to individuals. Instead, customers were all volume buyers like distributors and retailers: it was was only open at night, felt a bit dangerous, and everybody there was busy. I brought a volunteer friend/helper on the occasion of each feast and together we wandered between and around the stalls ― watching men cut fish, stepping out of the way from puddles of fish blood and high speed forklifts and carts stacked high with wet bulging boxes. I avoided eye contact with anyone who looked our way. After our bit of wandering, we’d hook up with Pepe -- who devoted about one minute of his time to the transaction of our live crabs.
There is no multiple-vendor retail fish market in New York. In fact, I welcome information on any existing market in the US with seafood as its focus. In NYC the best option is a visit to one of the many greenmarkets (like Union Square) which may have a few options. Otherwise, go to Chinatown.
What about the rest of the country?
Pike Place Market in Seattle? Only four fishmongers in total, and you can find cheaper Dungeness Crab from Uwajimaya. Los Angeles area? Don’t think so. San Francisco? Chinatown.
Washington, DC? Yes, actually! The excellent Maine Avenue fish market ― with 6 independent vendors ― is old-school and affordable. I just phoned up Captain White’s Seafood City, at (202) 484-CRAB, and learned that they’ve got male XLs for $32/dozen, live or steamed. [By comparison, I also found out from City Crab (a restaurant in New York ― not fair, I know) that today’s price for steamed crabs is about $85/dozen. Conclusion reached: if you want crabs, get out of Gotham.]
But as far as I can tell, you’d have to leave the US for the fish market of my dreams. [Or, for that matter, for the produce market of my dreams: farmers’ markets in the US are expensive, right? (Rollover above photo for a shot of the amazing market in Villefranche-sur-Saône, Beaujolais, France.)
The situation with fish differs from produce. First, there’s the issue of overfished fish: we don’t want fish to disappear. Then there’s the problem of contaminants: probably why you don’t find shark on sushi menus. In São Paolo, Brazil, due to a parasite outbreak a few years ago, they made a law that all fish sold there ― including for sushi ― had to be frozen first. And of course, fish tastes best in any country when consumed close to the time it was caught. [On beaches all along the Brazilian coastline, fishermen offer to cook a mixed seafood barbecue ―fresh off the boat!]
I can’t recommend seafood based on safety or ecological correctness, but check out this pocket guide of recommendations and warnings from the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. Since it only addresses fish sold in the US, it’s with an asterisk of naïvité ― and please forgive the digressions ― that I hereby designate the fish market in Catania, Italy as a SEAFOOD WONDER OF THE WORLD.
Sensing danger from oncoming non-stopping traffic at every intersection and hearing firsthand from my friend that organized crime ― well, let’s just say ― "exists" in Catania, I feel safe remarking that Catania is not over-policed. And when Nick’s friends in the breakfast bar warned me not to take pictures at the fish market because someone would snatch my camera, I weighed their advice.
"How would they get my camera," I asked, as I demonstrated a tight hold. And then the friend showed me: he swiped at the strap on each side of the camera, got his hand onto the camera grip, and made as if to run off with Mr. Canon. Oh, that's how.
As we walked through a piazza on the way to the market, Nick pointed to the window display of a souvenir shop: Godfather bobbleheads. “See?” he said.
If I hadn’t been so concerned with my camera ― I clutched it for dear life ― I might have thought to record audio or video because the dominant characteristic (besides the enormous selection of fish just off the boat) of the Catania Fish Market is the sound of the mongers as they siren in crestfallen Italian ― “FISH FISH COME TRY MY FISH ― COME SEE MY FISH ― I HAVE THE BEST FISH ― FRESH FISH ― FISH FISH."
Sure, there were tourists and gawkers meandering between the bloody buckets and flesh covered tables ―and a local news team covering the action (it was Good Friday ― a day where all but the most reformed of Catholics abstain from meat) ― but the majority of perusers were shopping. When Nick’s dad Mario reached the stand of his fish guy, he and Nick took their time deciding which fish to get. I snapped photos, sniffed around, and wandered behind the tables to check out the pavement people don't see ― here's a photo.
And then the magic happened: an elder fishmonger offered me a raw shrimp ― in a most special of ways. He peeled the legs portion and, holding it by the shell, reached it to within inches of my mouth. I felt like an ancient Greek being fanned and fed grapes. I opened my mouth, craned my neck by a micron, and as I enveloped the shrimp from his fingers with my mouth, he clung to the glassy shell. He fed me. I had let him feed me. It happened fast.
He offered me another, and ― because I'd had a moment to reflect ― I realized I didn’t know the decorum and didn't want anyone to get the wrong idea. So I took shrimp #2 from him with my hands. And then, when my wife declined his offer for a raw shrimp of her own, I had a third ― taking it again with my hands since that way had worked fine.
The Catania Fish Market has about as many vendors as the Union Square Greenmarket in NYC, but about three-quarters of them sell only seafood. And though it’s the sort of thing one must see to believe, here's a slideshow of some of the shots I got during our visit. The lead photo is of Nick's father Mario, in the car on the way there.
Blu-express Airlines offers inexpensive flights to Catania from many cities in Europe. Catania Fish Market is open every day except Sunday from 6 am until 11 or 12.