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Joe Gurrera – Citarella

You could say no one knows fish like Joe Gurrera. The deep passion he has for fresh catch can’t be taught. It’s in his blood, how he grew up, and how he has forged his life. Once the youngest kid at the Fulton Fish market, Joe is now the purveyor of gourmet excellence as the owner of Citarella. His newest book, Joe Knows Fish, is an ode to his roots. Within its pages, Joe shares his own favorite recipes, little known tricks of the trade, and most important, tips that make cooking a gourmet fish meal easy. I was lucky enough to catch up with Joe and pick his brain after perusing the book. Here is what he had to say:

When was your love of cooking born?

One of the first things I ever cooked was a whole fish. It wasn’t intimidating because I was a fishmonger and I knew how to fillet a fish. For a long time, cooking for me was about entertaining. I really wasn’t cooking every day because I was working day and night between the Citarella retail store and Lockwood & Winant wholesale market. I’m not a chef, but I’ve been cooking for over 40 years. I like to eat simply—not a lot of sauces—and I have always cooked the same way, even for guests. I want to taste the true flavors of the food, which is why I value fresh ingredients. I only cook with the freshest foods—and that’s what I sell in my stores too. And now when I have time and a craving for something, I like to get in the kitchen and create.

What inspired you to write Joe Knows Fish?

Hands down to take the intimidation out of cooking seafood. I’ve been wanting to write this book for years. People are always telling me that they don’t know how to cook fish, that it scares them. I promise, if you can cook a beef steak you can cook a fish steak. It’s that easy. I wanted to write a book for beginners, introducing them to different flavors and textures of seafood. I want people to love fish like I do.

I’m a pescatarian who is intimidated to cook fish. Why do you think so many people are scared to cook fish?

Honestly, I think people are intimidated by cooking fish because they didn’t grow up with it. If their families didn’t eat or cook fish, they most likely don’t know what to do with it. They don’t know how to buy, handle, or cook it. People are always worried they’re going to ruin seafood when they cook it. And you know what, if you overcook it, you are going to ruin it. Timing is the most important element to preparing seafood. Because fish is delicate, you have to be extremely focused and not allow for any distractions when you cook it. Pay attention when you’re cooking fish and you’ll be successful.

What’s the best way to get the smell of fish out of your kitchen? 

Always turn on your exhaust fan and take out your trash! Don’t leave a fish carcass or skin or seafood shells in your garbage, even for one night! And truth be told, fresh fish shouldn’t smell fishy. If it does, you should rethink your relationship with your fishmonger. It should have a fresh smell, like the sea. And don’t use wooden cutting boards. They hold on to fish odors. Use plastic surfaces instead.

What’s your favorite recipe in your cookbook?

That’s like asking if I have a favorite kid. I love them all. A few of my signature dishes, though, are my ceviche, which is perfect for summer. Spaghetti vongole is always one of my go-to dishes, and, of course, I could always eat crudo. I even eat scallops raw. I will admit, I do have a particular soft spot for soft-shell crabs and shad. I think their seasonality makes them special.

What’s your favorite meal to prepare in your home in the Hamptons?

If it’s just my wife and me, I usually grill whole fish, maybe branzino or porgy, or make something like roasted clams. One of my favorite things to do is cook for a crowd. Some of my favorite dishes to prepare are roasted cod and oven-roasted littleneck clams, with just a light dusting of breadcrumbs; and white-wine steamed mussels are great because you can cook up a big pot of them, and serve with crusty bread to soak up all the garlicky broth. If the weather’s nice, we just bring the pot outside and let people dig in.

To order your copy of Joe Knows Fish,