In the News

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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