One look at Italy on a map and it's clear why fish and other seafood are important parts of the Italian diet. Some seafood dishes and ingredients are still primarily only found in Italy - but there are plenty of other ingredients that are commonly found in the cases of fish mongers along Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.
Baccalá, dried salt cod, was once a staple of the Mediterranean diet, particularly among the lower socioeconomic classes. (My great-grandfather opened a baccalà shop on Arthur Avenue in teh 1920s, in the space that is now Vincent's Meat Market.) Today, baccalà is popular in fritto misto and readily available on Arthur Avenue.
Many are probably familiar with vongole (clams) - "spaghetti alle vongole" has made its way onto the menus of Italian restaurants all over the world. Scungilli (whelk) might not be as well-known, but the meat from these little mollusks is a key component of the Feast of the Seven Fishes in Italy and Italian-American homes on Christmas Eve.
Sea urchin (ricci in Italian) might be more closely related in American minds with sushi, but it's also a delicious addition to lots of Italian dishes - or simply eaten fresh right after it's pulled from the water.
You can find all of these things - and much more - in these Arthur Avenue fish markets. And don't forget to stop now and then during your NYC food tour for a fresh seafood snack at one of the sidewalk raw bars at Randazzo's or Cosenza's in between your shopping errands. Shrimp, clams, and oysters are available along with slices of fresh lemon and cocktail sauce.
Cosenza's Fish Market
2354 Arthur Ave.
This is a fantastic place to enjoy some oysters or clams on the half shell at their summertime sidewalk raw bar. It reminds my husband Christian of when his dad would wolf down a dozen oysters while waiting for mom to be done with mass at Our Lady of Mt Carmel. The prices are a quarter of what you'd pay for the identical oysters in Manhattan - Cosenza's is famous for its high-quality seafood and low prices. In addition to everything you'll need for Feast of the Seven Fishes, their prices on shrimp or salmon are unbeatable. (Wild caught salmon for $11.99 a pound!)
2327 Arthur Ave.
Randazzo's was opened in the early 1920s by Frank Randazzo, a fisherman who came to New York from Sicily. Today, the store is run by the third generation of the family, and you'll still find a dazzling array of fresh fish and other Italian seafood on display - much of which comes in right from Italy. Pick up whatever you need for dinner that night, and - in summer - take a break at the raw bar on the sidewalk to down a few oysters before moving on.
2372 Arthur Ave.
A family of Austrian Jews opened Teitel Brothers in 1915 (my great-grandfather's baccalà shop was next door), and it's the third generation of the family that operates this market today. This is where local chefs go to do the shopping for their restaurants. The goods are almost entirely Italian, though the shop closes on Jewish - not Catholic - holidays. While the only seafood you'll find here is baccalà, you'll be able to stock the rest of your pantry from the great (and inexpensive) selection of olive oils, pastas, sausages, vinegars, flours, and other assorted Italian goodies.
Teitel also sells stocca fish which usually perplexes those who see it displayed outside their front door. It's a whole cod that's dried outside underneath tents, usually in Norway. It rehydrates after a week of soaking.
The Best Spaghetti alle Vongole Recipe
Aside from making sure you're using the best ingredients, there are a couple other secrets to making a perfect spaghetti alle vongole - colatura and clam juice. You can read more about the details on the importance of each in this post, but here's the recipe.
4 tbs extra virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed with the back of a knife
1 tsp colatura (optional)
1/2 cup lemon juice
2 tbs chopped parsley
3 lbs vongole (the smaller the clams are, the better)
In a large sauté pan, add the olive oil, garlic and hot pepper and heat over a low flame until the garlic begins to soften. Add the clams and cover. Shake the pan a few times to distribute the clams across the surface and raise the heat to medium-high.
Wait about two minutes and peek inside to see that the clams are opening. (Leave covered if they require more time.)
Once the clams have all opened add the colatura sauce to the liquid. If the clams didn’t release much water, add a splash of white wine.
While the pasta is still very al dente, remove with tongs and place it in the pan with the clam juices. A bit of the pasta water will be transferred as you do which helps the sauce better adhere. Toss and cook over medium heat until l the pasta is done (to taste). It will absorb most of the liquid from the clams and take on its delicious flavor.
Plate the pasta with the clams on top, lemon juice and parsley. Serve immediately.