I grew up in a seafood restaurant. My family owned The Fisherman’s Wharf on Mott Street in Manhattan’s Little Italy from the mid-1940s to 1958. Situated in a corner building, with a striped awning over its Houston Street entrance, the restaurant was on the same block where I lived and went to elementary school. Much of my childhood, from shortly after I was born until age ten, was spent there. My Uncle Charlie was the owner, my Aunt Lena helped in the kitchen, my mother waited tables, and my father ran the clam bar. Most nights, we had dinner at home because the evening staff came on at about 4 o’clock, but on school days, I’d always go to the restaurant for lunch. I had my own booth where, in my younger years, I took afternoon naps, and when I started school, did my homework at three o’clock. On those lunch hours, I could order anything on the menu. The offerings were mostly seafood but there was also steak and chicken, as well as some Italian-American dishes like spaghetti and meatballs. I loved shrimp, and the deep-fried breaded gamberetto with lots of ketchup was my favorite. The shrimp and rice special was pretty good too. Only, I’d have to pick out all of the pieces of celery before I ate it—I didn’t eat any green food back then except pickles. There were lunch-time regulars who’d invite me join them at their tables to chat about school. I’d entertain them with stories about the nuns who taught me at Saint Patrick’s and sometimes get them to help me with my assignments.
Back then boats still brought their catch to the Fulton Fish Market from the fishing grounds off New England. They came through the Long Island Sound directly to the open pier on the East River at the foot of Fulton Street where they sold the contents of their holds—cold-water fish like pollock, haddock, or cod—before going back out to sea. If the crew decided to spend a night in the City they usually started with a few drinks and dinner in one of the local restaurants; Sweet’s, Carmine’s, or Sloppy Louie’s, now all long gone. Anyone could walk out on the pier where they docked, although no one did unless they were in the seafood business. The pier smelled of sea water and fish, and while the fish couldn’t have been fresher, it still smelled, especially in summer.
It was always a treat to go with my father and Uncle Charlie to the fish market. Open all night, it closed at eight in the morning. My father would wake me when it was still dark, and he, my uncle, and I would take his car for the short drive to Fulton Street. We’d arrive at six. The market building stood on a broad enclosed pier over the East River, but a lot of the activity took place right on South Street under the elevated East River Drive.
As my father and uncle bargained with fishmongers, arranged for deliveries, and talked with friends, I wandered on my own. For a young boy, the sights there were fantastic; flounder and fluke stacked high on ice, wheelbarrows filled with porgies, and the piles of clams and oysters heaped like stones. What seemed like sea monsters to me were the giant, decapitated swordfish, sliced crosswise to show the quality of the steaks, the heads on display, their swords pointing at the customers. Always enthralled with crabs, I loved chasing the escapees skittering sideways down the street. As it started to get light, herring gulls arrived to compete with the local cats who’d feasted there all night, and swooped in to take whatever they could get their beaks on.
The men who worked the fish market were a rough-looking bunch, with their longshoreman hooks hung on their shoulders, but they were all nice to me. When they got off work at eight o’clock, we’d join them for breakfast at a bar near Peck Slip that opened early. It had steamy windows that I could write my initials on. The longshoreman worked all night, so instead of scrambled eggs or pancakes, they’d eat a hearty meal of roast beef and turkey with fried potatoes and hot cherry peppers. Everyone drank coffee, steins of beer, and shots of whiskey. I’d have a Coke but otherwise ate everything they did. The cook would tell my father, “The kid’s got a good appetite.”
I’d known the Fisherman’s Wharf chef, Michele (pronounced like the Spanish Miguel), for as long as I could remember. He’d immigrated from Sicily, and we became good friends, although he spoke with a mix of Italian and English that was hard for me to understand. He’d let me watch as he cooked, and when I was about seven and tall enough to reach the kitchen counter, sometimes I’d help. He didn’t mind if I played with the live crabs kept in bushel baskets in the kitchen, but made it clear I wasn’t to go near the lobsters which had much stronger claws than the crabs. They came packed in seaweed and ice, in open-sided crates, with wooden pegs wedged into the joint at the base of their claws so they couldn’t open them.
“Pero,” Michele said, “some-a time, the peg, she slip out.”
Michele hardly had to warn me. The lobsters’ fierce looks were enough to keep me away, but I enjoyed teasing the crabs. They’d square off and raise their claws, ready to fight. That game went on until one day, I came up against one that was too quick for me. It grabbed my finger and wouldn’t let go. Michele pulled open its claw to get it off, then my mother put some mercurochrome and a Band-Aid on my bloody finger. Along with a kiss to make it better, she gave me a lecture about how I was asking for trouble since it’s in a crab’s nature to “bite little boys who bother them.”
The Fisherman’s Wharf was on the corner of Mott and Houston Streets, and was well known in lower Manhattan—many of the regulars came from the offices and factories just west of us on Broadway. The restaurant was long and narrow with tables and red vinyl booths that ran the room’s length to the kitchen. The windows looking onto Mott Street were decorated with plants and large conch shells that my uncle had gotten at the fish market. The clam bar and counter, just inside the entrance, were decorated with hanging fishnets. In the summer, my father sometimes opened a wide window and served clams on the half shell to passersby on Houston Street.
There was a cellar that was used for storage and only accessible from the street through iron doors set into the sidewalk. I kept my bike down there, but since I was too small to open the heavy doors, I always had to find someone to do it for me. One afternoon, when Michele had to bring a delivery down to the cellar, I was about to take advantage of the open doors to get my bike when he came back up yelling, “Che puzza! What a stink!” My father and uncle went to investigate, and I sat on the cellar steps waiting to see what they’d find.
For some of the clam dishes, Michele often used large chowder clams he’d chop into small pieces, and that’s what led to the problem in the cellar. The clams were kept on ice and covered with damp burlap to keep them alive and fresh. Sometimes when clams are out of water, the shells begin to open. A rat had found one with its shell open and stuck his head in to eat it. The clam clamped down on the rat’s neck and killed it, but the rat must have been able to take a few bites of the clam because the clam died too. My father came out of the cellar holding a softball-sized clam with the rat’s body dangling from the shell by its neck. I thought it looked interesting and asked my father, “Hey Da, can you gimme that to show my friends?” He laughed but didn’t give it to me. A dead clam smells bad, and so does a dead rat. What they smelled like together was horrible, but such an amazing sight I was sorry I couldn’t let my friends in on it.
On a hot afternoon during the final summer of the restaurant, my Uncle Charlie took me and three of my buddies, Johnny, Vinny, and Paulie to see the fishing boats. We met a longshoreman friend of my uncle named Chubby who took us aboard one of them. We boys were between eight and ten years old, and Chubby was able to answer all of our questions about fishing—how long the boats stayed out at sea, what kind of fish they caught, or anything else we wanted to know.
When we went below-deck, my friend Paulie asked, “What do they put on them big shelves?”
Chubby laughed and said, “Those ain’t shelves, they’re bunks. That’s where the crew sleeps. And this is the kitchen. It’s small because the rest of the hold is for the fish they catch—if they’re lucky.”
At the height of summer, in the blazing sun on that open pier, the heat was intense. After showing us around, Uncle and Chubby decided to go for a swim in the East River off the end of the pier. They seemed to have prepared for this because they’d changed into bathing suits in one of the boats. Using a rope ladder, they climbed down about ten feet into the water. It looked like they were having a great time, and I asked if we could join them. The tide was changing, and my uncle wouldn’t let us go in. He felt we weren’t powerful enough swimmers for the East River at ebb tide.
“The current is too strong for you guys. If I let you get washed out to sea,” he said, “your mothers’ll kill me.”
The four of us were disappointed and hot. My uncle and Chubby must have felt sorry for us because they got a couple of buckets and some rope and began pulling up river water to pour on us. My uncle didn’t want to get us in trouble with our mothers by going home in wet clothes, and since we were at the end of the pier and far from the public street, we stripped naked. In the blistering heat, the thermometer heading above 90 degrees, that cold East River salt water felt terrific. In the midst of this, a Circle Line sightseeing boat came up the river and navigated close to the pier so the tourists could see the fishing boats. We began jumping up and down, yelling and waving and they waved back—until they realized we were naked. Women turned away, and fathers covered their daughters’ eyes. Far from being embarrassed, we kids thought it was funny, and so did the longshoremen and fisherman on the pier.
That autumn, Uncle Charlie got a notice from the landlord saying the building had been sold and was scheduled to be demolished. It made me sad to hear that. The Fisherman’s Wharf had been an extension of my home, and I spent my childhood there. The employees and steady customers were like family and had watched me grow up. About two years later, my uncle opened another restaurant a little further down Mott Street from where the Fisherman’s Wharf used to be. It was called Maria’s and served the standard Italian-American fare that most of the other Little Italy restaurants specialized in. By then, Michele had retired and was no longer the chef. Even though I could hardly understand his fractured English, I missed hanging out with him in the kitchen. Instead of family, the new restaurant was run by an all-professional staff. I was older and maybe that’s why I didn’t care about getting friendly with any of them. Everyone and everything was more business-like—it wasn’t as much fun as the old Fisherman’s Wharf. Worse, it wasn’t a seafood restaurant, so there were no more trips to the fish market and no crabs to play with.
I rarely ate at Maria’s. We had dinner at home, and once I’d started high school, it was too far to go for lunch. But it wasn’t only about the food. So much of my young life had taken place there and now it seemed as though it had never existed. In that short time since the old restaurant closed, I’d matured a bit and looked at things differently. I saw that I’d had something special in the Fisherman’s Wharf, and now it was no more. Nothing was left but a vacant lot and some broken bricks with a few weeds growing between them.
Artwork by Nicki Filipponi © 2018
Robert Iulo’s work has appeared in The Atticus Review, Gastronomica, Hypertext and others, including the museum of americana. He’s had a special feature published in the Mississippi Sun Herald about his volunteer work on the Mississippi Coast after Katrina. He’s a native New Yorker and lives in New York City with his wife. For more information: http://robertiulo.naiwe.com/