Hooked: The City’s Freshest Fish Come Once in a Blue Moon

EM8-LowRes30Call it a farmers market love story. Almost 20 years ago a Long Island fisherman named Alex who sold his catch at the Greenmarket every Saturday caught something unexpected: the eye of Stephanie, a recent NYU grad who worked the orchard stand next to his. They’d chat during lulls, as market vendors do, and before long she was spending weekends in Mattituck. Eventually, she didn’t want to go back to the city when Monday came around.

That was 18 years ago; today Alex and Stephanie Villani run Blue Moon Fish together. But romance isn’t why, at Union Square on Wednesdays and at the Greenwich Street Greenmarket on Saturdays, Manhattanites patiently line up, a dozen deep, single file, to buy their remarkably fresh catch. Unlike most Long Island fishers, who sell their haul to distributors, the Villanis drive into town twice a week for a symbiosis that makes them—and their customers— very happy.

“We buy from them because they are straight from the boat,” says chef Ryan Kn of Café Asean in the West Village, one of a dozen Manhattan chefs who shop the stand each week. With the possible exception of fish you catch yourself, Blue Moon’s fish is the city’s freshest.

“If it’s crossed out, it’s sold out,” Stephanie explains on a recent Wednesday, pointing to a dry-erase board with several items crossed out. “We usually sell out of everything.”

The board lists over a dozen fish—skate to fluke, blowfish to blackfish—plus clams, mussels, oysters, scallops and home-smoked fish. The catch varies with the seasons: tuna and mahimahi in summer, herring in winter, porgies and sea robins year-round—even the elusive Long Island lobster in spring and fall.

“People have trouble with the idea of local fish,” says Stephanie. “They ask for salmon or shrimp or Chilean sea bass, and I explain Chilean sea bass isn’t from here, and it’s really overfished, and isn’t even bass. But we have great striped bass and great black sea bass.” (Stephanie empathizes with farmers who have to explain in spring that there isn’t any corn yet.)

A one-boat operation (Alex goes it alone on their 36-foot Duffy), the Villanis offer wellknown fish like cod and swordfish, but they remind customers there are other fish in the sea, recommending perfectly delicious species that larger fishers discard, like sea robin and sand shark. They even have free fish heads for stock.

Customers, some of whom have been shopping at the stand weekly since 1990, express their heartfelt gratitude. “They say it’s really hard to find high-quality, fresh fish at reasonable prices in the city,” she says. “I like to hear that our fish tastes great. Most fishers put stuff in a box and never hear about it.” Alex, who grew up in the city but started fishing commercially in the early 1970s, raking clams and catching eels and crabs, recalls a surprising interaction with a customer shortly after he started selling at the Greenmarket in 1990. “The customer said ‘Thank you,'” he recalls. “No wholesaler had every thanked me for my fish.”

Those thankful customers include some chefs at some of the city’s most beloved eateries. At Spanish spot Txkito in West Chelsea, chef/owner Alex Raij gets the majority of her seafood from Alex and Stephanie, including “exceptionally tender little squid” plus whole fish destined for the nightly specials board. “They’re almost like a part of the restaurant,” says Raij.

Their clams are steamed and served with pride at Old Town Bar, just north of Union Square. “It’s great stuff, and nice folks, too,” says Old Town’s David VanDenburgh.

Of course the Villanis don’t just do it for the praise. “Billy Joel was right when he said ‘You can’t make a living as a bayman anymore,'” says Alex. “You really can’t.” Distributors and canneries pay fishers a small fraction of the retail price. But at the Greenmarket, there’s no middleman—just the fisher (or farmer) and the customer. “That’s why we’re here,” says Alex. “We can make a living.”

Back at the couple’s home in Mattituck, Stephanie was in a cargo container retrofitted as a smokehouse preparing one of Blue Moon’s most popular products, and, for customers without a taste for muffins, the best ready-to-eat snack at Union Square: smoked bluefish. “Even people who don’t like bluefish like it smoked,” she says. The fillets of the particularly oily species develop a slightly caramel crust even as the inside retains its succulence.

She smokes fish twice a week, using applewood from a Hudson Valley orchard that sells at the Greenmarket, and taking advantage of any catch—bluefish, dogfish, striped bass, monkfish, eel—that’s abundant that week. (She smokes sea scallops around Christmas and jars them in olive oil, with garlic and parsley, but that’s just for friends and family.)

That smoked bluefish is a mainstay on the menu of Doma Café in the West Village, where chef Evie Polesny has been buying the intensely flavored fillets and making pâté since before she even worked as a chef. She remains dedicated beyond the blue, too: “They are the only ones we buy from,” says Polesny, “and it’s the only fish we serve in the restaurant.

“They’re closed for a month or two each winter,” Polesny says, “so for a few weeks each year we have to source from someone else, which is a major hardship for the restaurant. It’s never as good.”

Photo credit: Max Flatow