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May 1, 2013
Column: Six of one, half a dozen of the other
I don’t remember making a conscious decision about this, but I strive to split my liquor expenditures evenly between Dandy’s in the Center and Wines & Spirits in the Heights.
Given the size and year-round population of the Island — its gestalt, if you will — it seems the right thing to do. We should support as many of our local merchants and purveyors as our limited funds allow. In the case of liquor, we are roughly equidistant from both stores, although when urgent needs arise, Dandy’s gets the nod because of the two or three minutes I would save making the run. As I think about it, another benefit of splitting visits is that one store’s sales personnel has no idea that you’re actually purchasing twice as much their receipts seem to suggest. But enough about that.
I extend this splitting activity to the Island’s fish markets, Bob’s and Commander Cody’s, two establishments that seem impossible to imagine being located anywhere else but here. No offense intended toward the liquor store sales people, but the fish market splitting is almost entirely driven by the personalities of their respective owners. With Bob the purchase is friendly, enjoyable and serious. With James (for some reason way back I started calling him that out of some faux formality) you get the same treatment, with a smidgen of impishness. And of course the occasional smoked scallops. These places and men seem essential to Island life as we know it. Of course that is why we live and visit here: Characters such as these, a humane pace of living, natural beauty, beaches, water, Mashomack, equidistant liquor stores.
There is no reason to split your spending dollars in Manhattan. You pretty much find out where you have to go to get something you need and you stick with it. In fact if someone were to overhear you talking about splitting your liquor purchases out of some goofy fairness principle, you might well be bundled up and forcibly admitted to Bellevue.
In our Upper East Side neighborhood, almost anything you need is within a several block radius. But you won’t be encountering any Bob’s or Commanders. I am one of those who utterly reject the notion that most New Yorkers are rude and dismissive. (Although up the block there is a specialty market whose owner’s berating of customers is legendary. I must submit myself sometime.) Yes, there can be shortness, curtness, some impatience can be afoot, but also great warmth and humor (along with deep veins of ability and expertise).
There’s a Citarella market down Third Avenue and a sushi place along the way. I have ordered the same thing for years: spicy tuna with avocado. Typically, I pop into the sushi place en route to Citarella. I walk in, either one of the two hostesses smiles and punches in my order working only on a silent nod from me. We laugh about it and I go to Citarella. On my homeward leg, in decent weather, she sees me coming, goes to the store’s outdoor railing and hands me my order. I don’t even break stride and we laugh again.
What I’m usually carrying back from Citarella is fish or seafood, along with the usual fruits and veggies and the occasional raw material for a meatloaf. The guys that work the 30-foot-long iced display area know me but we don’t banter, except for a rare Red Sox/Yankee exchange (I’m Sox). Despite the vast array of choices, we stick mostly to tuna, salmon, tilapia, red snapper, the occasional monkfish and flounder, although we know we shouldn’t and are cutting back. Scallops, of course, bay and sea, and the occasional twelve-pack of oysters, shucked for a buck or so. Citarella, by the way, is responsible for a sea change (ha!) in my oyster-buying. For years, I have been a strict Wellfleet oyster loyalist. I like them briny and, with family on the Cape, have been to the pretty village many times. (There’s a used bookstore by the bay where you could easily spend several days in intense browsing mode.)
One fateful day, the Citarella fishmongers had no Wellfleets. Jose, the only monger who wears a name tag, suggested oysters from Fishers Island, that Southold outpost that seems like it should be part of Connecticut (long story). A briny revelation! They are now my first choice, although I gladly and somewhat sheepishly return to Wellfleets when the Fishers have been snapped up.
As you face the arrayed fish and seafood, the complexity of the lifeforms increases as you gaze left to right. The bivalves are at the far left, the whole fish, with their unwavering accusatory stares, are at the far right. In between are all manner of things: the lobster tanks, filets and steaks of many fish species, octopi, soft shell crabs (in season), salmon cakes, fish sausage and Cajun-marinated catfish, among many other delectables from the sea.
Nestled among the whole fish is a small gathering of sea urchins, off-putting spiny globes. What, may I ask, do we make of these? A monger answers that it’s what’s inside that counts. According to a widely visited online information resource in some Mediterranean cuisines they are eaten raw, with lemon, and, on Italian menus, used in pasta sauces. Elsewhere on the planet, the gonads of both male and female sea urchins are considered delicacies.
Something tells me that neither Bob nor the Commander is going to be adding this item to the chalkboard anytime soon.