June 25, 2018
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A good catch: Portland fish market’s new cookbook celebrates family, food and community

By Kathleen Pierce, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — When a publisher approached Harbor Fish Market about doing a cookbook, the owners took pause.

“We all looked at each other and said, ‘Who’s got time for that?’” said Nick Alfiero, who runs the popular Custom House Wharf fish market in the Old Port with his brothers Ben and Mike.

His wife, Kathleen, knew better.

“You don’t have time not to do this,” she told him.

In September, the 47-year-old company that has fed generations of Mainers and countless tourists oysters, mussels and other fresh delights from the sea launched its first book, “Harbor Fish Market, Seafood Recipes from Maine.”

The book is less a repository of tasty recipes — although they are there, too — and more a history of a working-class Portland family that stays successful by staying honest.

“We’ve seen competition come and go and come and go and come and go,” said Nick. “We keep rising above it because we are proud of what we do and we do it the right way. We don’t cut corners.”

And customers, who are snapping up the book filled with stunning images of roasted fish with rosemary sprigs, baked lobster and crab cakes, have beaten a path to their creaky door for that integrity.

The response to their book, penned by Nick, Kathleen and their son Rian, surprised the Italian brothers who grew up working in the ramshackle shop their father, Ben, opened in 1966 with his brother John.

“In the last few years, I’ve come to appreciate the fact the people appreciate what we do,” said Nick, the eldest Alfiero son, who left a lucrative career in Manhattan in the mid-’70s to help his father.

Released a month ago by Down East Books, the cookbook, like the market itself, is a straightforward approach to fish. When tackling a recipe, keep three things in mind.

“Buy good fish to start with, be adventurous and don’t overcook it,” said Nick.

His younger brother Mike, who contributed a few recipes to the publication, agrees.

“The best way is to just keep it simple. Let the flavors come through.”

And, says Ben, whose wife, Robyn, pitched in with a few culinary classics, “don’t be afraid of it. It’s such a simple product … If you can boil an egg, you can cook fish.”

Such clarity rules these pages.

The “Fish 101” section lays out the rules for buying fish, the difference between wild and farm-raised and how to store seafood.

The book delves into the variety of fish with instructions on how to handle shellfish and a step-by-step photo spread on filleting a fish.

The project, packed with recipes culled from friends, family, chefs and customers, took eight months to complete.

“It was joyful to do this together,” said Kathleen, whose son Rian, 38, helped with the layout and editing of the book.

Nick cooked all the dishes and did the plating. Growing up in an Italian family with a mother who nurtured through food, he knew what he was doing. Although he said, “I’m a cook, not a chef, and there’s a difference.”

Recipes such as Linguine with Clam Sauce and Salmon with Lemon and Dill heighten the flavors of the ocean. There are more intricate recipes in the book — roasted shrimp with orange and fennel over risotto and Thai steamed mussels, for example — but all can be made with minimal fuss, Nick said.

The book is a tangible manifestation to what this family has been preaching for decades.

“One of our missions is to always provide good, fresh seafood that we would take home ourselves. Educate people, guide them through what they should have for dinner,” said Nick.

Fish can be purchased in many places, but this specialty market continues to win fans and weather storms, both economical and ecological, because it’s grounded in fundamentals. And that has lead to a loyal following.

Besides a bustling walk-in trade, 60-65 percent of their business is wholesale. They existed in the Old Port, before the city became “restaurant town,” selling fish to the city’s top spots — DiMillo’s on the Water, the Portland Regency Hotel and Eventide Oyster Co.

“We’ve contributed a huge amount to the culinary scene in this town. There are a lot of restaurants that never would have gotten going and be where they are if it wasn’t for us. I think we’ve been the foundation for a lot of that growth,” said Nick. “When I look back over this many years I guess I’m pretty proud.”

And so are Maine brands such as L.L.Bean, which called Harbor Fish Market a Maine icon in a marketing campaign, along with Portland Head Light, Mount Katahdin and The Portland Observatory.

“That’s the first time it hit me, when L.L. Bean made that statement, it hit me,” said Nick.

Besides fresh fish, the company’s biggest asset is its employees.

“It’s an integral part of who we are,” said Mike, who employs 45 full- and part-timers, many who’ve been with the company for 20 years.

“It goes along with our whole mission statement around the business. Sustain it so we can continue to be here,” he said. “We see a good employee as an investment in the company. They are an extension of our family.”

And speaking of family, the book is dedicated to Ben Alfiero senior, who died five years ago, and left the business a decade ago for his sons to manage.

His wife, Gloria, lives on Munjoy Hill and contributed a few recipes. When she saw the book she touched the grainy black-and-white photo of her late-husband cutting open a fish, looked towards the heavens and said, “He can’t believe it.”

Nick, who is pictured in the book cutting open a lobster in the same stance, said his father would rest easy seeing the shop thrive.

“I think in the last 10 years we’ve made some strides and I think he would be very proud of it. His family was it for him.”

“Harbor Fish Market: Seafood Recipes from Maine” can be purchased at the market, 9 Custom House Wharf in Portland, for $29.99 and at local booksellers such as Nonesuch Books & Cards, 50 Market St., South Portland.

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