The lunchtime buzz inside the new Citarella on Hampton Road in Southampton is surely rising, but the assortment of fresh greens proves enough of a distraction to keep the din in the distance—at least until a smartphone flash goes off, leaving in its fade the face of a smiling woman holding what seems to be a large triangle of brie in each hand. She and the guy holding the phone walk over to the wall of olive oil, then past the fresh seafood, the kinds of displays that might inspire Andreas Gursky to start snapping away, if the famed photographer wouldn’t, like the bustle of other shoppers, find his hands otherwise engaged with, say, a carton of fresh sliced coconut or an imported bottle of lemonade.
“This is insane!” says a woman looking over the rainbow of sushi selections at a recent lunchtime, picking up and examining spicy tuna rolls with the squinty-then-wide-eyed wonder of a patron making a discovery at an art opening. She looks at her friend in amazement. “How did you not tell me about this sooner?”
That friend didn’t have much of a choice. There were no fireworks or marching bands when the shop’s doors opened barely three weeks ago. It’s hard to imagine such an anticipated arrival coming under the umbrella of a soft launch, but that’s how Citarella owner Joe Gurrera wanted it. “I didn’t publicize—I didn’t want to publicize—because I wanted to open it slowly. I didn’t want to get slammed. It’s a little difficult to do the right thing, and you only get one chance to make a first impression.”
Citarella has already made an impression in the Hamptons—its East Hampton and Bridgehampton locations are gourmet-market meccas, a natural extension of Citarella’s New York City roots and the patrons who helped it grow. Gurrera bought the Citarella at Broadway and 75th Street in 1983 (the Citarella business name itself having been established in NYC in 1912) and expanded it over the years in breadth—from seafood to include meats, cheeses, prepared foods and other culinary offerings—and in reach with more locations. His three children—Helen, Nancy, and Anthony—are all involved in the business, and there are now also spots on the Upper East Side and in Greenwich Village, along with the East Side restaurant Fulton.
“This is not my first rodeo,” he says with an I-know-that-you-know-that smile. But those who don’t know how to ride the bull, well, they usually don’t get second shots. The goal for Southampton was always “to be able to get all the kinks out before Memorial Day. Being out here so many years, you understand how the business goes, how you get slammed on Memorial Day,” he says. “The main thing is to get the flow going and get the kinks out in order to give the customers the proper service.”
The son of a Sicilian immigrant, Gurrera worked in his family’s fish store as a kid, earned a degree in finance from St. John’s University, and eventually broke out on his own. He bought the Fulton Fish Market wholesale company Lockwood & Winant in 1985, then later started Meat Without Feet, a wholesale supplier to restaurants, all while increasing Citarella’s reach and high-end offerings.
“Starting in the seafood world—you can’t get much higher-end than that, as far as dollars go—I applied my seafood technique to everything I’ve done.” It’s a simple technique, when boiled down: Demand the best. Get the best. Offer the best.
When he was still working in his father’s business, he hopped a flight from New York to fly an order of fish out to Wolfgang Puck in California. The kind of reputation that sort of move engenders takes effort to maintain. You run the risk of being expected to impress and, on occasion, even amaze. Gurerra doesn’t seem fazed by that notion. But this is, after all, the man who a New Yorker story famously revealed once gave Martha Stewart a rare white apricot when she came into his store and wowed the domestic diva. That’s no easy task.
Nor is continuing to break into new areas while maintaining the appeal of your core. “We’re always trying to evolve, but we always have the passion for food. I’m not going to start selling paper towels, if that’s what you want to know,” he says with a laugh. “I’m not doing that.”
Instead, his latest move is to bring in a hot table, in all three Hamptons locales, tapping into the comfort-food desire of every social strata. “You can get meatloaf, you can get your fried chicken, you can get spaghetti and meatballs, we even have whole fried fish now, mac and cheese, mashed potatoes….” When he gets going, talking about food, his excitement becomes palpable. “If you want your sushi, your pizza, your salad bar, you want your hot soups and the full menu of panini. We will be adding seafood for the summer. You’ll be getting steamed mussels, fried calamari and all of that.”
In only a matter of weeks, the Southampton store already feels like an institution, but it was a long time in the making, Gurrera says. “It’s about six or seven years that I was thinking of coming here, but it was pretty difficult. I couldn’t find the right spot, or I couldn’t get the right approvals,” he says. “There’s been more than a half a dozen different ideas that I had, but they would not have been approved, as far as permits and that goes.”
Questions of parking and the septic system arose during the process of his buying and converting the property, along with other issues that got less public play. “I had to jump hurdles,” he continues. “There were a lot of different pieces that had to be in place before construction could start—that was the easy part. The property was in default, and there were tenants to move.”
Businesses such as The Perfect Purse and the Ananda Yoga and Wellness Center had been leasing space in the building and had to make other arrangements, yes, but few people have talked about how Gurerra helped out on that front. “I was just being a businessman, just being an entrepreneur,” Gurerra says. “I wasn’t being a hard-ass, and, you know, I did the right thing. I asked [The Perfect Purse] to move, and he did, across the street, and I asked the yoga place to move, and I paid for it. There were other people, and I guess they retired or they took their money and they [left].”
Gurrera, for his part, is not going anywhere, getting each “T” crossed and putting a dot atop every “I” for Memorial Day and the season that follows—and the seasons following that. “Summertime is fine, but being in business 52 weeks a year is what counts,” Gurrera says. “We’re not a New Yorker coming here to conquer and leave, as most locals do not like. I’m a resident here, so we’re here to stay.”
That “we” includes the team of experts he’s built at Citarella—“meat guy, produce guy, pastry chef” he ticks off like an all-star game manager running down his lineup. Gurerra is quick to add, “I’m the seafood guy,” a title he wears with pride and on his sleeve. Ask the guy who can truly call the world his oyster, the man who could have anything for dinner, right now, and he goes back to his roots.
“If I had to choose one thing, it would be seafood, fish,” he says, not a hint of hesitation getting in the way. “It wouldn’t be lobster—I like lobster, don’t get me wrong—but a whole grilled fish, any kind.”
The love is apparent. And it’s one he hopes his customers will share, or at least try. “I am sure there are a lot of seafood items that people have not tasted or tried, and I would recommend that people try anything local from here—whether it’s skate, which I love, striped bass, porgies, whiting, squid. We get a lot of the seafood from the fishermen right out of Montauk, out of Hampton Bays, out of Shinnecock. Eat the local seafood here.”
Local is an important concept to Gurrera, who embraces Hamptons living with gusto even away from the table. “I love it. I love it. I really do,” he says. “This year, the seasons have not been working, but I love it here. The beach, golf….” He smirks. “We’ll see how long it takes me to get to that this year.”
Throughout the year, Gurrera can be seen at numerous Hamptons events with his wife, Yusi, as they’ve gotten behind many local causes both personally and with Citarella. Over the years they’ve supported East End groups from Guild Hall to the Parrish Art Museum, East End Hospice to Southampton Hospital. With Citarella, the impact runs deeper than many realize. “We support the local community, the fishermen, the farmers,” he says. “Now, with [the Southampton store opening], we are one of the largest employers on the East End. Year round. And we are here to stay.”