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.