Even more so than with most foods, I’m completely clueless when it comes to seafood. Besides having never purchased or cooked it myself, my palate is inexplicably discriminatory: I like tuna and flounder, but not salmon or tilapia. I could eat a thousand clams and mussels, but the mere thought of an oyster makes me nauseous. I’m totally down with crab and calamari, but totally grossed out by shrimp.
If there’s anyone who could help me make sense of my fish-related qualms and queries, I figured it was Anthony D’Angelo, owner of South Philly’s famous Ippolito’s Seafood. For those who don’t know, Ippolito’s is the original five-generation marketplace from which Samuels & Son Seafood, the largest seafood distributor on the East Coast, was born.
The first thing I noticed walking into Ippy’s was the aroma—or, better yet, the lack thereof. You see, against all advice and better judgment, I’ve eaten in some pretty stank seafood joints in my day. Anthony reiterated the wisdom that a fishy odor is indeed a warning worth heeding: In fact, it’s the fish’s bacteria telling you to stay away. Regardless of smell, he recommends making sure your fishmonger is butchering his fish on-premise, because if not, it’s probably been sitting around for at least 12 hours.
Despite having been disappointed both times I’d tried salmon before—at, it must be said, non-smelly restaurants—I was happy to learn that’s exactly what we’d be frying up. Third time’s the charm, right? Plus, I refuse to believe that something that looks so much like chicken could be bad.
But this was no ordinary salmon. Oh, no: According to its brochure (that’s right, a fish that comes with its own brochure), Skuna Bay salmon is harvested in a “completely relaxed state” from “glacier fed waters” and “hand-selected by one of six approved salmon experts.”
How much might this fancy-schmancy fish cost, you ask? A pound will run you about $18. (The accompanying reading material is complimentary.) But Anthony stresses not to dwell too much on price—it’s all about quality, and the two don’t always go hand in hand. In fact, he says anything over $25 is likely a ripoff.
Given the spirit of this column, we kept our dish as simple as possible—and when you’ve got a Grade-A piece of salmon like this one, you really don’t need to try that hard. After wrapping it in a paper towel for 10 minutes to soak up the excess water, we seasoned both sides of the salmon with just a pinch of pepper and sea salt. Then Anthony whipped out his secret ingredient: Wondra flour. Though it’s typically used as a gravy thickener or in baking recipes, sprinkling a little on the skin of a fish before pan-searing it helps lock in the flavor. Anthony’s second secret ingredient: butter! OK, so butter isn’t a secret, but apparently, a lot of people make the mistake of cooking fish with olive oil—a big no-no in his book.
Just for the hell of it, last minute, we decided to add a few scallops to the dish as well. “People always think that it’s so hard to cook seafood, but it’s not,” Anthony declares. “It’s easier than chicken.”
With my cooking lesson having been 100 percent hands-on from beginning to end, I can back up this statement. In just 15 minutes, the salmon was perhaps the juiciest and most tender piece of fish I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. I damn near stabbed my photographer with my plastic fork when she reached for a second bite. It also packed a helluva lotta flavor; apparently, Wondra really does work wonders. (Note: I asked whether it has the same effect on meat, but Anthony has only tried it on fish.)
My scallop handiwork, on the other hand, was just OK. But I barely had a chance to appreciate the dish in front of me anyway before two more appeared: the “Best of Philly” sandwich (a jumbo lump crab cake topped with lettuce, tomato, onion and Sriracha mayo) with a side of their house cut French fries, followed by two sashimi tuna tacos filled with seared big-eye tuna, cilantro, lettuce and chipotle remoulade. I wasn’t a huge fan of the tuna taco, but definitely understand why their massive crab cake burger was dubbed with a “Best.”
Since there was no way I could house all three dishes in one sitting, Anthony sent me home with a hefty doggie bag, including a small container of bangin’ macaroni salad that he snuck in. I wound up needing a full 24 hours before I could even think about ingesting another piece of fish—but I’ll be damned if that salmon didn’t taste just as good the second time around.
Find this week’s seafood recipes, plus all the other dishes Nicole has learned from Philly chefs so far, online at forkingstupid.com.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014