Walk into Citarella in Manhattan or the Hamptons or Connecticut and the piscine passion of owner Joe Gurrera is on full display. The artful presentation of fresh fish, the colors and textures and…the terroir? Indeed, for many people, such an offering incites not inspiration but some form of ichthyophobia. And now, Gurrera has a cure for what ails them.
“People are afraid of fish, afraid to cook seafood, to buy it or handle it,” he says. “I was driven to write this book for that reason—to make it simple, to be informative, that’s it,” he says of his first cookbook, the never-has-there-been-a-tome-more-appropriately-named Joe Knows Fish: Taking the Intimidation Out of Cooking Seafood.
“I’m not a chef, but I know how to cook. The main thing I stress is the simplicity of the fish. It’s all about the flavors. I wanted to write it 15 years ago, but I was just too busy. Now here it is.”
And it’s pure Gurrera, cover to cover. The book is no nonsense and funny—“Do you want to hear what happened to the couple in Milano who sprinkled cheese on their spaghetti vongole? THEY’RE STILL IN JAIL!”—packed with knowledge and an effusive love for all things seafood.
Joe Knows Fish is based on, as the author says, simple premises: Buy the freshest, highest quality ingredients you can from a source with whom you’ve built up trust, and then follow the steps Gurrera lays out.
To take the ease-of-use concept to a level many cookbooks won’t go, every recipe comes with photos of how the dish should look when you’ve cooked it, and, perhaps even more important, how the fish should look when you buy it.
Freshness cannot be stressed enough when cooking with seafood. This starts at the source. Naturally, Gurrera recommends buying at Citarella—“That’s my pantry!” he says with a laugh.
But more important to him is finding a source you can trust—a fishmonger with experience, one who will do anything from answering questions about sustainable sourcing to shucking your clams. Without the right fish, the pursuit is ultimately fruitless.
To make the book accessible for beginners and inspiring to those more advanced in the culinary arts, Gurrera breaks everything down into 10 chapters—six on techniques (Grill, Bake & Roast, Broil, Sauté, Poach & Steam, Fry), followed by Toss with Pasta, Chill & Eat Raw, Savory Sides and Classic Seafood Sauces.
The levels of difficulty, such as they are, rise as the page numbers increase, but Gurrera insists, “there’s nothing really challenging in there. It’s all simple. Olive oil, salt, pepper, good utensils, a good pan…it’s not really recipe driven.”
Fear not, though, there’s no lack of recipes. Many embrace our local bounty—Montauk tilefish, lobsters and fluke, flounder, stripers and porgies, which Gurrera highlights as “one of the best tasting fish in the ocean”—while others allow Gurrera to share discoveries from trips afar.
Entertaining origin stories of dishes like the Italian Surf & Turf invented in Florida (you’ll never eat nachos during a football Sunday again) or the scallop crudo discovered on a New Year’s Day in Denmark, take this book beyond just a recipe collection. It’s a love story.
Gurrera is a man of relationships, building and preserving them. As you flip from monkfish to mackerel, he makes sure the appreciation for what winds up on your plate deepens with each shout-out he gives to an international cadre of fishermen.
You’ll meet oyster legend Howard Pickerell of Peconic Pride in Water Mill and the Nolan family in Montauk. You’ll get introductions to Gault Seafood in South Carolina; and Endurance Seafood, Outer Banks Seafood and the Full-Circle Crab Company in North Carolina.
Such tales of people, places and plates make Joe Knows Fish a story of Gurrera’s journey to this moment. From days as the 10-year-old son of an Italian immigrant father who took him to the Fulton Fish Market in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, to his time delivering fish across the country as a 17-year-old; from getting his big break meeting with Wolfgang Puck, to his biggest move—buying a classic saw-dusted seafood shop called Citarella on New York City’s Upper West Side in 1983. And…well, 35 years later, here we are.
Now, you don’t get where Gurrera has gotten by following everybody else’s rules. As the pages turn, the sound you’ll hear is the crack of conventions breaking. Squeezing lemon over cooked seafood (don’t do it), eating oysters only in months that end in R (go ahead and add Y, E and T…if you know your source), the wild versus farmed debate (it doesn’t necessarily matter. But that thing about knowing your source? Yes, apply it here, too.), the myth of “sushi grade” (it simply equals freshness, that’s it).
On the subject of myths, a dear one is about to be busted. Prepare yourself. Every Italian mother is not a great cook. Gurrera’s mother wasn’t (although he’s sure to note that she was great at many things, as any good son should), thus the recipes in Joe Knows Fish are not a collection passed down through generations, but rather his own.
He does recall her making the Steamed Flounder with Italian Seasoning, however, and though he can’t pick a favorite dish in the book, he admits this is particularly close to his heart, as it was her favorite, and the fond memories of her making it remain with him to this day.
Gurrera’s roots as a New Yorker are very much at the book’s core. “If I lived in California or someplace else, I couldn’t have written this book,” he says, noting that the variety of seafood in our surrounding waters have helped him develop a familiarity and expertise he could have acquired nowhere else.
“Even if I was in Florida on the water, I couldn’t have done the same thing that I did here. Besides me having a place in the fish market for 30-something years, I have the access to what’s flown in from Greece or Norway or wherever. I’m very fortunate.”
Along with the warm recollections, Gurrera remembers the flounder from his mother’s kitchen was often overdone. If you take nothing else away from this book, that’s it: Cooking seafood is, first and foremost, all about the clock. Watch it. Respect it.
“Do not answer your cell phone!” he says, and not in jest. Whether you are frying, grilling, sautéing—do not overcook your seafood. Say it out loud. Do not overcook your seafood.
Or don’t cook it at all. Raw seafood may be one of the most fear-inducing of topics, but in Gurrera’s hands, it will become a go-to. You’ll learn the difference between tartare and crudo, and you’ll soon find yourself gazing in a whole different way at that tuna, fluke, salmon or Spanish mackerel—you can tartare and crudo it all (if tartare and crudo weren’t verbs in your vocabulary, well, they are now).
No matter your level of experience, this is likely your intro to Branzino crudo, which Gurrera had never seen done anywhere else when he decided to put it in the book.
Showing people something new, expanding their reach even just a bit, this is ultimately the hope of Joe Knows Fish. It comes back, always, to his passion for sharing his lifetime of knowledge—how to pick out a fish, how to cook that fish—he wants to help.
Learn how to shuck oysters and clams, how to devein shrimp, how to remove the meat from a lobster, how to filet a whole grilled fish, and how to tell a male lobster from a female (it’s probably not what you’re thinking). These are the kinds of things that people ask him—or are afraid to ask, so he’ll tell them anyway.
“This is what I do,” he says with a smile. “This is what I know.”
Joe Knows Fish is available at all Citarella locations and online at citarella.com.