Family dinner with the Mattituck couple that makes New Yorkers swoon for seasonal seafood.
“I’d better move that aside so we don’t drink it!” laughs Stephanie Villani, as she gently pushes a small, round glass bowl containing a happily swimming goldfish away from the stemless wine glasses on the table. But in the solar-powered Mattituck home she shares with her fisherman husband, Alex, and their pixie-cute daughter, Ruby, it’s kind of impossible to shove aside the topic of fish.
The Villanis are at home on a rare, lucky Wednesday—normally, on a day like today, Alex will have been out fishing since 3:00 a.m., and Stephanie wouldn’t even get through the door until about 8:30 at night after spending the day selling their eastern Long Island–sourced swimmy wares at the Union Square Greenmarket. But this is the last week of their two-month-long winter break before once again setting up tented shop at New York’s Greenmarkets at Union Square (Stephanie’s mid-week shift), TriBeCa and Grand Army Plaza (Alex’s domains on Saturdays).
“I’m already starting to get calls from some of my customers. It’s a novelty in the city to know your fisherman,” Stephanie says, chopping walnuts to add to a sauté of butternut squash. She pushes the cylindrical chopper, blades safely inside, to Ruby, six, who presses her small hand down on the gizmo for a steady chop, chop, chop as her mom tosses the bowl of diced squash into a warm pan with olive oil. “But sometimes I wonder: Are you glad to see me, or do you just want the fish!”
Blue Moon Fish is indeed a well-deserving darling of the Greenmarket, offering not just a fish or a bivalve for all seasons, but instructions on how best to cook them (as a rule: “simply,” says Stephanie) as well as the low-down on where Alex nabbed his flippety fresh finds. It’s been a lifetime of learning for this solo-act fisherman, who’s been at it for over 35 years and knows the local waters as well as his daughter’s sweet face. He says he loves the ebb and flow of the quiet mornings on the water juxtaposed with the jocular liveliness of the weekend markets, not to mention nights like this home with the family.
“You put it in like this, see?” He stands at the counter, way over six feet, with tiny Ruby next to him standing on a pink, plastic stool. Soup spoon in hand, she is helping her dad stuff the shells of cherry stones with his mix of bread crumbs, parsley, garlic, lemon, olive oil and (of course) chopped-up clams.
There is nary a sprinkling of Parmesan in Alex’s baked clams, and this is way they like it. “Some people love cheese on baked clams,” Stephanie says with a slight wince in her expression. “Oh, I don’t like them like that. They don’t need cheese!” Right she is. When they come out of the oven, warm and aromatic, the tender, fresh clams mixed with the other ingredients are like the perfect little seafood-meatball—plush, tangy, savory. You’ll find yourself reaching for a third when you promised yourself you wouldn’t have more than two.
“Things have changed a lot at the Greenmarket,” he says shaking his longish, gray shock of hair, taking a plate of flounder from the refrigerator that he’d caught that morning in Mattituck. “In TriBeCa, there used to be all artists and weirdos, and now it’s stockbrokers and Jon Stewart.” As he says this, he preps the flounder two ways—dipping one set in panko bread crumbs and a dusty crush of pecans; the other in panko and unsweetened coconut, Ruby’s favorite from their recent respite in the Florida Keys. In a deep pot, a mix of olive and vegetable oil (Alex prefers the blend: “Olive oil just tastes better.”) starts to smoke, and in go the fillets for a quick, crisp fry. Yes, lots has changed, echoes Stephanie, citing cell phones and EPIRBs (safety locating devices for sailors lost at sea) as a spouse’s best friend. “It used to be he’d go out and say he was coming back at a certain time, but if he didn’t, you worried. It was always because he’d just decided to fish a little longer, but still—you worry!”
“Net design is different, too,” Alex says, between bites of flounder. “They allow us to target the fish we want and bring in and you get far less bycatch.” But do they get sick and tired of fish? “Never. We eat it like four nights a week.” Of course, when it’s so fresh and flavorful, it’s a hard thing to resist. “There are people that ask me, ‘What do you do to the flounder to make it taste like that?’” Alex laughs. But it’s true. The gently sweet, flaky white fish bears little resemblance to the bland, farm-raised (and, potentially old) stuff wrapped in plastic in the supermarket.
“There are people who don’t know what fresh bluefish tastes like,” marvels Stephanie. “They say, ‘Oh, I don’t like that,’ but they’ve never tried it fresh. When they do, they always change their mind.” Popular at the market is Stephanie’s smoked version, which she makes weekly during the Greenmarket season in a smoker Alex fashioned from an old refrigerator. “I also like to just bake it with tomatoes or citrus—it’s a fish that really likes acid.” Another one of Stephanie’s other underdog favorites: Mackerel. “It’s rockin’!”
They tell fish tales into the night, until Ruby is sleepy and Alex brings his tired daughter with a little belly full of flounder upstairs for stories and bedtime. Tomorrow, Alex will be up dark and early to hit the water and see what lies beneath, and Stephanie will be preparing their smoker and myriad equipment for the busy weeks and long days and months ahead. But they are ready for the strenuous swim upstream. “You know, when people have freshly caught fish and realize what it’s supposed to taste like? They’re shocked!” she says, her bright, blue eyes opening wide in amazement. “
Really—we’re very lucky.”