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Abalonetti Bar and Grill

Table for Two: A fresher perspective at Abalonetti

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The Monterey County Herald

Longtime Wharf favorite mixes traditional favorites with a few twists

When tourism wanes, Fisherman’s Wharf shivers on its timbers, casting its economic nets toward locals with promises of savory seafood at bargain prices, free parking and a harborside, sea lion serenade. It’s been a tough sell for this historic pier, which throughout its history has been the focus of Monterey’s economic structure, whether off-loading bales of Chinese silks, barrels of Spanish wine or tons of wriggling sardines.

Locals, it seems, don’t care much for chowder hawkers, schlock shops and dining alongside Brad from Omaha. But the Wharf is changing, and people like Kevin Phillips, managing partner for Abalonetti, are leading the way. “We love our locals,” said Phillips, a longtime foot soldier for John Pisto, who owned Abalonetti and Domenico’s for decades before unloading them in 2007. Restaurateur Jim Gilbert purchased Abalonetti in 2007 and cut Phillips (general manager for Pisto’s restaurant group) into the deal last year.

Now, all the changes Phillips once imagined for Abalonetti are coming to fruition. The last real menu alteration occurred in 1996, so Phillips started there, keeping the classics, such as Marty’s Special (an eggplant/calamari dish named after original owner Marty Liguori), the namesake abalone and its modern-day calling card, calamari.

Phillips knew he couldn’t mess with the squid; people come from all over the world for Abalonetti preparations — both tubes and cutlets (the restaurant orders 900 pounds a week, cleaned and prepared in house).

But how about adding a few twists? Phillips loves Buffalo wings, that spicy, bar-friendly finger food. So he fashioned a recipe for fried calamari dipped in hot sauce, and his Buffalo calamari is all the rage. The kitchen also fires up a garlic calamari, inspired, Phillips said, by the Gordon Biersch garlic fries served at ballparks. They also serve an abalone sandwich for $16.95, a price unheard of in these parts. “No one knows how I do it,” Phillips said.

As for his neighbors, Phillips points to the free parking for county residents (just show your ID) and his unprecedented locals menu (three courses, $12.95, seven days a week). “No one else does that,” he said. Add a happy hour that never ends (with $2.99 drinks) and a new glass-walled patio with westward views of the water and rec trail, and the changes should entice inquiring minds.

HE SAID

There are times, most notably after a cold Pacifico on a hot day, when I wax poetic about the perfect piece of cooked fish. It’s not adorned with batter or encrusted with nuts or poached for an hour in olive oil or smothered in cream sauce. It’s caught that day, seasoned simply and grilled over an open fire with a splash of citrus for good measure.

We all want to taste the fish, I would hope. Over the years, many local places, Wharf restaurants among them, have spent far too much time trying to dress up their fish.

So, as I sit next to the window here, the idyllic harbor view to my right, I fully expect the kitchen at Abalonetti to ruin the halibut and prawns I had just ordered. I steady myself with a glass of Lockwood sauvignon blanc ($21 bottle) and happily munch on the novel Buffalo calamari, a dish that is sure to have every local Sicilian red-faced and steaming.

It’s tasty, and I give it major points for creativity, yet I had hoped for more of a crispy exterior. They have a deft touch with squid here, though. No matter the preparation, it’s always sweet and tender (the squid salad in the antipasto plate is a revelation, and should be immediately copied by competitors).

You could call the Buffalo calamari a gimmick (albeit a tasty one), but on the whole the new and improved Abalonetti strays from such devices. Witness the fresh grilled vegetables such as fennel bulbs and garlic heads; fresh-caught squid cleaned out back by two employees; nearby farmed abalone, served in financially painless portions; a caring staff, many of whom have spend 15-20 years working here.

My entrée arrives, and I smile at the sear marks on the unadorned halibut fillet in a shallow pool of pinkish tomato coulis, three plump, butterflied prawns nestled next to it. Rounding out the plate is a simple tomato crudo, and a tender-crisp vegetable medley of green beans, peeled squash, carrots and broccoli. Add to this a bottomless bread basket (the bread here is stellar) and my experience makes me want to help coax locals here, confident that it probably isn’t what they imagine.

SHE SAID

In all honesty, until last weekend, I’d enjoyed only one memorable meal on the Wharf (Old Fisherman’s Grotto, 2007). Restaurants here don’t have to hold themselves to a standard because their audience is captive — and often, frankly, ignorant. Tourists are absolutely charmed by the idea of these quaint places, where clam chowder samples are offered out front, and the day’s catch is prominently displayed over ice. Locals try to warn them that they will pay dearly for exceedingly mundane food. But ignorance is bliss, and they leave feeling they’ve had the quintessential Monterey experience.

Abalonetti is a pleasant surprise, which makes me feel a little like a tourist. I can’t help liking that rustic seaside crab shack ambience with its open wood-beamed ceilings, hardwood flooring and windows flooding the dining room with natural light. And selections are fairly moderately priced, except for the abalone (the entrée is $49 at market price today).

So, I arrive with a preconceived notion, but I’m quite pleasantly surprised. I’m struck by some original ideas — the antipasto bar, for instance. It’s simple and elegant and representative of the way all good Italian meals begin. The chef makes the selections, which may include grilled fennel bulb, marinated mushrooms and artichoke hearts, roasted peppers, grilled eggplant, roasted garlic, garlic spinach, kalamata olives and feta cheese, all nicely and thoughtfully prepared ($9.95 for a half-order, $13.95 for a full order). Also, that abalone sandwich is unique; I’ve never seen this offered anywhere.

I’m a pushover for crab Louie, and Abalonetti’s version doesn’t disappoint. Of course, the imperative is lots and lots of delicate, sweet Dungeness crabmeat, and this plate is absolutely heaped with it, including big satisfying chunks of leg meat. Somewhere underneath are nice, fresh field greens, and elegant garnishes of slender green beans; red, ripe, Roma tomato wedges; olives; hardboiled eggs and that hallmark dressing, served on the side (a bit pricey at $19.95; also available as a combination with shrimp).

So, my blanket aversion to all-things-Wharf is happily blown with this visit. Well, and people watching is always worth the trip. Also, we sometimes get to go to the gelato place, which I heartily recommend.

Mike Hale and Melissa Snyder approach their reviews from a couple’s perspective. All visits are made anonymously.

Monterey’s Abalonetti: a good place for calamari

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by Ricardo A. Diaz – The Californian

I always try to hit tourist spots I live near during the off season; I encounter fewer funny accents and mini-vans. But sometimes I get past the marine layer, which always seems to hover just south of Marina but breaks off just before Seaside, and things look too good, a postcard view that I take for granted.

Sunny days around here can make you get in line and enjoy the beauty at all the popular spots. So I am wandering around Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey today, looking at all the restaurants and wandering into a place that people have been telling me about forever: Abalonetti Seafood.

I walk in and meet managing partner Kevin Phillips, who shows me to a table overlooking the quieter side of the wharf. “It’s important on the wharf to be different from everyone else,” Phillips says.

“We have the largest waterfront patio, which is dog-friendly; we have an open, atrium-styled building so on nice days like today, we get the breeze going. We like that it feels a little more casual and play to that with our antipasto bar.” The antipasto bar features roasted garlic, marinated mushrooms, feta cheese, grilled eggplant, marinated squid. It’s bar food, but really good bar food.

I have a calamari sampler to start. Phillips brings some of the more traditional flash-fried calamari, along with some buffalo calamari (highly spiced) to clear my sinuses and some Baja-style with fresh pico de gallo. That and a couple of wood-fired oysters with garlic and butter get me started. The oysters’ brininess of the sea mixes with the earthy smoke flavor; I could put these away all night, but there are other things to try.

There is only one entrée named for a person on this menu. Wouldn’t you know, the person who sent me to this place told me I needed to try it. So Marty’s Special comes at me; flash-fried calamari filets over pieces of fried eggplant with parmesan and mozzarella and with a Sicilian marinara sauce. It was crunchy with hits of cheese and no chewiness to the calamari, perfectly cooked, with the marinara giving the dish a lot of spice without it actually being spicy.

Phillips gives me the history of the dish. “Marty was part of the two families that started this place along with the market next door,” he says. “This place originally opened in 1951, and in the early ’50s, calamari was not really prevalent in restaurants. This has been on the menu since then.” Phillips notes, “It takes two days to make our marinara; it simmers for 10 hours. And with all of our squid, we bring catches in and clean them ourselves. It never goes anywhere else. We process everything. “Lots of [restaurants] say ‘local squid,’ but there’s a lot of squid that’s caught here in Monterey and sent for processing in China and then brought back and sold as ‘Monterey squid.’ ”

I also order some fresh abalone, farm-raised in Monterey, grilled with a panko breading. It just melts in your mouth, thin and delicate, and very luxurious. Who knew a sea snail would taste so good? I follow that with some cioppino. I pick out the golf ball-sized scallops first, my favorite, and then go fishing in that soup.

Squid Inc.: Has ‘Calamari Capital of the World’ lost its identity with the famous cephalopod?

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By MIKE HALE, Herald Features Editor

Squid enthusiasts who buy a box of “Monterey Bay Calamari” at the local grocery store may not feel the weight from its gigantic carbon footprint, but such a box often holds a dirty little secret: Much of the squid caught in these waters is shipped to China for cleaning and packaging. Only four local processing plants remain as part of Monterey Bay’s 150-year-old market squid fishery (first harvested, ironically, by Chinese fishermen in the 1860s). Due to labor costs and automation, it’s cheaper now to ship the product halfway across the world and back.

Which begs the question: Has Monterey (often called the “Calamari Capital of the World”) lost its identity with the cephalopod, the 10-armed, elongated creature first described by Aristotle in his “Historia Animalium” around 322 B.C.? And is our fast-food nation — one that puts “Mc” in front of processed food and calls it a meal — shunning an equally inexpensive yet healthful (and potentially sustainable) seafood the rest of the world craves?

“People today don’t know what they’re missing,” said Sal Tringali, a third-generation squid processor at Salinas-based Monterey Fish Co. “The Italian community eats squid all the time. We call it poor man’s abalone. It’s very important to us and we all grew up eating it. It’s comfort food.” Tringali sells whole market squid for about a buck a pound, the same price seen in the 1970s, he said. “Squid intimidates some people,” he said. “We want to give everyone a chance to try it because we know once they do they will be back.”

Tringali hears from local fishermen about record hauls this season (the northern fishery season — mainly in Monterey Bay — traditionally occurs from April through November). Market squid, Loligo opalescen, is normally caught at night using bright lights to attract the catch, but this season is so good many boats catch limits during the day. Even with those record hauls, Tringali laments the overall loss of identity with squid in the general community, pointing to the now-defunct Monterey Bay Squid Festival, the annual Memorial Day weekend event that ended its run in the late 1980s. “It would be fantastic to have a squid festival again, but it’s hard to get people to (organize) it,” said Tringali, who encouraged squid fans to try instead the local Santa Rosalia Festival, a free event in September that blesses the local fleet and serves a myriad of Italian delicacies such as calamari.

While Monterey Fish Co. and a few others sell their bay-caught squid to local restaurants, most of their product is shipped to hungry consumers elsewhere around the world. One local restaurant known for its squid, Abalonetti, cuts out the middle man entirely, cleaning 1,000 pounds of squid a week in a room behind the restaurant.

Restaurant managing partner Kevin Phillips hires a fulltime employee just to handle the messy work, but insists that it makes a huge difference in quality. “Look, number one it’s the freshest squid available anywhere, and number two the flavor (of squid shipped to China and back) doesn’t compare,” said Phillips. “It’s sad to see much of our local squid shipped away.”

Abalonetti’s “squid man” Faustino Perez uses scant fresh water during cleaning in order to preserve the natural seawater essence of the squid. “Overseas processing plants clean with way too much fresh water and you lose the natural salt flavor,” Phillips said. “Plus, they introduce chemicals to help retain moisture, because the product is ultimately sold by weight (thus, increasing profit).”

Abalonetti devotes an entire section of its menu to calamari, offering infinite variations: flash fried (no more than 25 seconds); elegantly sautéed and simmered in marinara; flash fried over fried eggplant with Sicilian red sauce, Parmesan and mozzarella (called Marty’s Special); or modernized twists such as spicy Buffalo, Baha or garlic. “We cook squid more than 20 ways … endless combinations really,” said Phillips, who noted the time-honored rule of thumb for tender calamari: “Cook it quickly or for a long, long time.”

Marty’s Special is the iconic dish at Abalonetti, opened 60 years ago this month by two families, the Favaloros and Liguoris, who also operated Liberty Fish Co. Patriarch Marty Liguori put Marty’s Special on the menu in the early 1950s and it’s been there ever since. “Calamari wasn’t served very much in restaurants back then,” said Phillips. “This recipe hasn’t changed at all in 60 years.” It takes two days to make the marinara, Phillips said, and the sauce simmers for 10 hours. “That sauce along with our fresh squid is a magic combination,” he said.

Squid cleaner for a day: Would you make the cut?

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By MIKE HALE, Herald Features Editor

When it comes to messy jobs, Faustino Perez can stake claim to one of the messiest, yet he works with a curious enthusiasm as the squid cleaner for Abalonetti restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf.

Related: Squid Inc.: Has ‘Calamari Capital of the World’ lost its identity with the famous cephalopod? (Scroll down to read the article.)

Perez spends his workdays hunched over a sink, practicing the fine art of eviscerating and cleaning mountains of whole squid, their cylindrical bodies plump with gooey guts and black ink. Perez, 35, cleans roughly 1,000 pounds of the slimy cephalopods each week as part of the restaurant’s long-standing claim of serving the freshest, most sustainable calamari on the Peninsula. “It isn’t easy, and it’s labor-intensive, but it’s worth it,” said Abalonetti managing partner Kevin Phillips, who bemoans the fact that much of the squid caught locally is shipped to China for processing before arriving back in the United States. To Phillips, Perez is a key to Abalonetti’s success, so he invited me down to the Wharf on a recent Wednesday to join in all the gut-flying fun.

In the bowels of the restaurant is the squid room, where for the last five years Perez has spent five six-hour shifts each week working his way through 25-pound boxes of fresh squid caught a short boat ride away. Clad in a dark apron and a ball cap and wearing surgical gloves, Perez demonstrates his technique, and the word that springs to mind is “machine.” Through an interpreter, Perez says he loves his job, and despite the long days up to his elbows in awful offal, he never tires of cleaning — or eating — what he calls calamar.

And the smell? He smiles, and shrugs, as if it’s not even a concern. “I take a lot of hot showers,” he offered.

Perez works carefully but furiously. First the knife comes down below the eye to remove, intact, the coveted tentacles (they are set aside because, while some customers love this delicacy, others can’t stomach the idea). Next, he quickly removes the fins, pulling off the skin with them in one motion. Then, with an efficient roll of his hand, he propels the innards out the tube and into a plastic bucket with a resounding plop. After removing the plastic-like pen inside the tube (squid are invertebrates), he tosses the cleaned, milky-white cylinder into a colander (little if any rinsing is required in order to retain the squid’s natural salty essence). Before it even settles into the pile he has grabbed another. The knife falls again and the process is repeated.

I’m captivated by his speed and precision, but when he motions me over to try, I hesitate. “I already took a shower today,” I’m thinking. I decline an apron but pull on the gloves to reduce the squeamish goo factor. Faustino backs away but eyes me warily. I lower my knife and make the first cut, and I immediately recognize a particular Spanish word: “No, no, no!”

Instead of cutting just below the eye to keep the tentacles intact, I slice too low and I end up with 10 small pieces. Perez picks them up and throws them away while shaking his head, a barely audible and gutteral “tsk-tsk” escaping his lips. Translation: “Amateur.” He backs away again and I resume, trying to gain a rhythm. I find it difficult to remove the filmy skin in one motion, and waste valuable time pulling at pieces of it. I roll my hand over the tube and foul liquid sprays through the tiny top hole and all over the front of my shirt. Perez shakes his head again (I can feel it).

I labor through eight bodies before I stop to do the math. There are roughly eight whole squid to a pound, and it took me 15 minutes to clean all eight. That put me on pace to finish four pounds of squid in an hour, meaning it would take me 250 hours to clean 1,000 pounds! Perez works through that 1,000-pound mountain over a span of just 30 hours. I turn to Perez and must look like a defeated surgeon, my gloved hands dripping with goo but pointed upward in surrender. My patience is dead. So are the squid, and they await the quick hands of Faustino Perez to help turn them into dinner.

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