Chef Tony Scarpati started cooking in his family’s Michelin-acclaimed restaurant when he was 9—one of the perks of growing up in Italy. Today, the chef, food educator and creator of “Ask Chef Tony” regularly makes the 1hr trip in from Westchester to The Bronx’s famed Arthur Avenue to shop ingredients for his Italian-Mediterranean cuisine—especially seafood. He’s been a faithful customer of Randazzo’s Seafood for about 20 years citing freshness, variety, and the usual and unusual seafood they carry.
When Chef Tony walks into Randazzo’s, or any seafood market for that matter, he knows exactly what he’s looking for. For us home cooks, it’s a little tricker. You may follow guiding principles of your mom or grandma, like I do, but there’s still a bit of mystery involved in the whole process, especially when it comes to best practices. A lot of us will have fish on our holiday menus, whether it’s a Feast of Seven Fishes or not. So I asked Chef Tony for a few pointers on how to shop fish, from selecting the freshest fish to how to treat it when we get home. Check out what he shared with us below.
On the best time to buy fish:
In terms of the day of the week, Friday is the best day to buy your fish. When it comes to getting good fish in New York, it’s all a question of demand. Fish markets in New York will stock fresh fish for Friday because of the high demand that is largely due to Catholics eating fish on Fridays. Conversely, Thursday would be the worst day to go to the fish market. I would avoid that as much as possible.
For the best time seasonally, then we need to take into consideration the species we are buying. Of course farmed fish are available any time of the year, but I always stick to wild caught fish as much as possible. Into fall, there are a lot of fish available in season. I like to get striped bass, grouper, red or blue snapper, mackerel, and flown in from Italy branzino (a European sea bass).
For ecological reasons, I am avoiding all the large fish like swordfish and bluefin tuna, year round. These larger species are heavily overfished and they really could use a break.
On picking the freshest fish:
If you really want to make sure the fish is fresh, it’s best to buy the fish whole. It’s hard to tell from a fillet how fresh it is. In Italy we say it’s all in the head and the eyes. The eyes should be clear, bright, not cloudy. The head should not smell. That’s the first part that will start to go bad, so smell the head. The gills should be red, not pale. And the last test is the skin. Stay away from slimy skin and look at the scales. The scales should be attached and not flaking off. If it passes those tests, you can be sure the fish is fresh.
On buying fish from the supermarket:
If I were shopping supermarket, the one rule of thumb I would follow is go with “high demand” items. Those are the ones most likely to have high turn around and more likely to be fresh. So go for items that are common such as flounder, salmon, snapper, etc. A supermarket is not the time and place to try anything exotic or unusual. Save that for the fish market.
On how soon before cooking to buy your fish, and how to store it:
Definitely, buy as close to the time you cook as possible. I would cook it right on the boat if I could! But of course, most of the time there is going to be some delay between buying and cooking. Try to avoid anything longer than a day before.
So, let’s say you buy your fish and you want to keep it as fresh as possible till it’s time to fire up the stove, grill or whatever. As soon as you get home, give the fish a good rinse under cold water to clean it really well. (Even though it’s been “cleaned” at the market, the fish is touching a lot of other fish, and hands, and things, and you want to get all those contaminants off.) Pat your fish dry and put it in a tupperware or ziplock with a paper towel on the bottom. Store it in the fridge. If you think you bought more than you can use, freeze the extra. No need to wait an extra day before doing that. In that situation, portion it out and freeze the extra in ziplock bags. If you freeze it fresh, it should not lose much flavor when you finally do use it.
On what kind of fish to choose depending on the cooking method:
Let’s start with grilling. For grilling, you need a large firm fish with large flakes of meat to stand up to the process of grilling. I would choose a fish like salmon, large trout, grouper, or large bass. When you start to use smaller and more delicate fleshed fish, they will fall apart and not survive the grill very well. If we are baking, we have more options. You could go with just about anything except the most delicate fish, such as flounder. A fish like flounder, and many of the other small flatfish, have very thin meat that cooks very very quickly, so it is harder not to overcook these when baking. For these, and other very small, delicate, thin fillets, I would pan fry or sauté.
If you are really into fish, I would simply try to make best buddies with the guy at the fish market. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and find out more from them. If they are a good fish market, they will be happy to answer your questions and to keep a fish-lover satisfied. If they are not helpful, it’s time to go somewhere else! Good luck!
Watch Chef Tony shopping Randazzo’s Seafood for the Italian-American “Feast of Seven Fishes” Christmas Eve tradition by clicking here.