Monterey’s Abalonetti: a good place for calamari

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.

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