Are you tired of tilapia? Sick of salmon? Bored by branzino? Long Island's great fish markets are bursting with slim, silvery whiting, inky blackfish, vermilion snapper, opalescent mackerel, prehistoric-looking cod. Sometimes pompano will show up from Florida — or mahi mahi from the Caribbean — to mix it up with the little neck clams that were dug up just a few miles away.
If you're not sure how to cook these jewels of the sea, your fishmonger is there to help with expert advice and, usually, a foolproof recipe.
Here are 10 of Long Island's best fish markets. All of them are owned and staffed by passionate piscophiles who want nothing more than to make a fish lover out of you.
4257 Austin Blvd., Island Park, 516-889-0692
Owner Artie Hoerning, a commercial fisherman who catches a great deal of what he sells, is jack-of-all-nautical- trades. He designs his own lobster pots and supervises the kitchen in the adjoining restaurant — which also serves as an informal gathering place for South Nassau's fishing community. His encyclopedic knowledge ranges from government fishing regulations to the phases of the moon. The market, pleasantly ramshackle with an accretion of maritime memorabilia, always has a great assortment of super-fresh seafood, but it's a toss-up as to whether Artie's is a better place to buy fish, eat fish or hang out.
361 Woodcleft Ave., Freeport 516-378-6575
Bracco's got its start when Ben Bracco emigrated from Trieste, Italy, in 1929 and bought a fishing boat in Freeport. By 1950, the boat had spawned a little market and the little market eventually spawned the waterside Bracco's Clam & Oyster Bar. This summer, owner Jerry Bracco (Ben's son) moved the market from its modest, original location (literally on a dock) to a freestanding building a few doors down. The new space is larger and sleeker (though there are plenty of photographs that document the business' colorful history), but it offers the same great selection of fresh fish as the old — without the draft.
1332 Broadway, Hewlett, 516-374-2401, hewlettfish.com
Since 1968, this lean, mean fish- selling machine has been serving the needs of the Five Towns with a wide selection of impeccably fresh fish. Over the years, the largely Jewish clientele has schooled owners Chris McManus and son Chris McManus Jr. in the art of gefilte fish. "It's mostly whitefish and pike," said McManus Sr., "with a little bit of carp as filler, but not too much carp or it will darken the mixture." The gefilte fish maven also stocks a full line of cured and smoked fish, such as salmon, whitefish, chubb, herring and sable. Now that the High Holy Days are over, Hewlett Fish has a little breather before its other crazy season: Christmas, when people come from all over the Island for all the piscine makings of the Feast of the Seven Fishes.
601 Old Country Rd., Plainview, 516-933-1447, johnsfarms.com
John's Farms opened in 1985. The stocked-to-the-gills supermarket carries groceries, meat and dairy, but it is the vast selection of well-priced produce and fish that keep the store busy during off hours and mobbed at peak shopping times. Owner Joseph Catalano ran a fish store while he was still in high school, and his heart is still at sea. There can be up to a dozen men behind the fish counter, waiting on scores of customers, most of whom will skip the tilapia and farmed salmon in favor of John's Farms' local offerings: swordfish, tilefish, mako shark (whose roseate hue Catalano likens to veal cutlet) and glistening, alabaster steaks of East Coast halibut.
521 Middle Neck Rd., Great Neck, 516-487-3145
Quality and longevity make Marine an integral part of the Great Neck community. Its cases are filled with dozens of varieties of fresh whole and filleted fish that owner Charlie Fravola aims to sell out of each day. The next day's fish will be purchased in the predawn hours, during Fravola's daily visit to the Fulton Fish Market. Behind the counter, the staff dishes out good cheer and great advice. Marine offers an enticing selection of prepared seafood; try the halibut salad. The store has welcomed Great Neck's growing, and fish-loving, Persian community. "We've all learned to speak a little Farsi," Fravola said. "These" — he indicated a couple dozen silvery whole whitefish — "are mahi safid."
255 Woodcleft Ave., Freeport, 516-379-0793
Kevin Halton and Tony Terzullie run this vibrant market, which features one of Long Island's largest assortments of whole fish. Tropical species such as parrotfish, goatfish and yellowtail jacks bring in the store's Caribbean clientele. Local seasonal varieties (bluefish, blackfish, fluke, striped bass) also are offered at very reasonable prices. Don't be afraid of the whole fish: the staff will fillet any whole fish at no extra cost. Have a yen for snapper on a Sunday? Two Cousins is the rare fish store open seven days a week.
30840 Main Rd., Cutchogue, 631-734-6700
Founded by George Braun in 1928 as an oyster-opening shop, this North Fork landmark was bought by Jim Homan in 1958. Under the direction of Jim’s son, Ken, Braun has evolved into one of the area’s largest seafood concerns, with thriving wholesale and retail sales. Braun supplies scores of restaurants and fish stores with, among other treasures, local Peconic Bay scallops, tuna from New Jersey, harpooned swordfish from Canada, wild salmon from Alaska, farmed salmon from Scotland — all of which are sold at Braun’s own attached retail store.
20 Montauk Hwy., West Sayville, 631-256-5900
Frank Palermo knows every facet of the seafood business. For 16 years, he was the head fish buyer for Pathmark supermarkets; he spent the next six years selling fish for NAFCO, the Maryland-based seafood distributor. But his dream was to open an old-school fish market, and in Palermo and partner Chris Meyer took over the Village Fish Market and renamed it Claws. Palermo’s display cases are filled with local tile fish and thresher shark, red snapper from Panama, West Coast halibut, Florida grouper and blue marlin. Claws also sells a full line of prepared foods (almost everything on display is available cooked) that you can take out or eat under an umbrella on the patio. The patio also operates as a clam bar/crab shack with a full raw bar, steamers, mussels, lobsters and Maryland-style hard-shell crabs.
36 Lighthouse Rd., Hampton Bays, 631-728-5186 (satellite at 212 Mill Rd., Westhampton Beach, 631-288-8184)
Located on the slip of land that forms the northern anchor for the Ponquogue Bridge, Cor J is practically in Shinnecock Bay. There's no real division between the retail space and the workspace, so be prepared to step aside if a whole tuna needs to make its way through. Jim Coronesi founded Cor J in 1974; now he runs it with his son Dan and partner Greg Morgese. Abundant local varieties include fluke, weakfish, porgies, tilefish and some rarities such as crevalle jack and spearing.
1051 Mastic Rd., Mastic, 631-281-9608
When Nino Locascio and his partner, James Cassidy, bought Mastic Seafood in 1998, it was already at least 30 years old. Indeed, virtually nothing in the pleasantly rough-hewn, vaguely seagoing decor seems to have changed since the 1960s. Many of the current fish-market trends have passed Mastic Seafood by: Aside from some stuffed clams, there are no prepared foods. Most of the fish are whole. And the prices are consistently 20 to 40 percent less than you'd pay elsewhere. "We also supply a lot of restaurants and some other fish stores," Locascio explained. "That means we can buy in quantity and go through fish quickly."
230 Main St., East Setauket, 631-751-2809
Since brothers Matt and Eddie Lin established this store in 1983, it has reeled in fish-savvy customers from all over northern Suffolk. The combination of freshness, variety and friendly service are unexcelled in the area. One of the pleasures of shopping here is watching Matt perform the delicate surgery that turns a skate wing into a boneless, skinless fillet, or Eddie mowing down a pile of local cod. The two men barely have to look at their knives as they peel off one perfect fillet after another. The head-on carcasses go into a bucket; they are offered free to customers who want to make stock.
64755 Rte. 25, Southold, 631-765-3200
Charlie Mainwaring has spent 26 of his 38 years working at this North Fork institution that also supplies many of the area's finest restaurants. In 2000, he bought the place, and this month it moved to spacious new quarters with lots of space for takeout and eat in — including a raw bar. Outdoor seating will be added next year. What hasn't changed: one of the Island's best selections of fish, about three-quarters of it from local fishermen. "I know every guy I buy from," Mainwaring said. "I know where he caught the fish, and I know that he iced it and took care of it."
A fresh whole fish should smell just barely of the sea and should be firm and resilient to the touch. The skin should be shiny and taut. If you peek inside the gills (just behind the eyes) they should be bright red or pink. The eyes should be clear and full, not sunken and cloudy.
It's easier to assess the quality of a whole fish than of fillets. If you're in the market for fillets from a relatively small fish (such as flounder or red snapper), consider buying a whole fish and having the store butcher it for you. (Many fish stores will do this free of charge.)
With larger fish — tuna, swordfish, salmon — you have no choice but to buy fillets or steaks. Look for moist, firm, full, glistening flesh that is not pulling apart or flaking where the muscles come together. There should be no dried-out or brown spots, and the flesh should be true to its natural color: salmon should be bright orange; tuna, red; cod, white. In a fish steak, the flesh should adhere tightly to the bone. Like whole fish, fillets and steaks should have virtually no smell.
Do not be afraid to ask to smell or to prod or to otherwise closely inspect the fish. You are well within your rights, and if the fishmonger balks, it's a sign he is not used to dealing with discerning customers.
MORE SEAFOOD MARKETS WE LOVE
Long Island is awash in good fish stores. Here are a dozen more that we recommend:
19 Degnon Blvd., Bay Shore, 631-969-0587, deansseafood.com
102 Bond St., Westbury, 516-876-0441, grabarfish.com
170 New York Ave., Halesite, 631-427-5120
Jewel of the Sea
8049 Jericho Tpke., Woodbury, 516-496-2416
Jordan Lobster Farms
1 Pettit Place, Island Park, 516-889-3314, jordanlobsterfarms.com
New Wave Seafood
1847 Wantagh Ave., Wantagh, 516-783-4900, and 91 E. Main St., East Islip, 631-446-1292, newwaveseafoodli.com
35 Covert Ave., Floral Park, 516-488-8841
Roslyn Seafood Gourmet
444 Willis Ave., Roslyn Heights, 516-484-7944, roslynseafoodgourmet.com
Stuart's Seafood Market
41 Oak Lane, Amagansett, 631-267-6700, stuartsseafood.com
293 Robbins Lane, Syosset, 516-681-3474, syossetseafood.com