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On the Road

Phil’s Fish Story (and the Creation of Monterey Bay Cioppino)

A childhood by the bay led to a life of chipping in.

By Bryan Roof | April 12, 2018

To do our Monterey Bay Cioppino recipe justice, staff photographer Steve Klise and I traveled to California to get a taste of the original. After spending a few hours at Phil’s Fish Market, we understood the hype.


 

IF IT WEREN'T FOR the line of people snaking through the parking lot to the front door of Phil’s Fish Market & Eatery in Moss Landing, California, you could easily drive right by it. The tin-sided combination of seafood market and restaurant blends into its industrial port surroundings, camouflaged by stacks of wooden pallets, rusted shipping containers, and dry-docked boats. The building was once a squid processing plant, one of many now-defunct fish processing facilities in the area (John Steinbeck’s famous novel Cannery Row was set in Monterey, just a short drive down the coast from Phil’s).

Crowds from a rodeo and a motorcycle rally taking place in nearby Salinas mix with local sightseers fresh from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. DiGirolamo expected to feed 3,500 customers on the day that I arrived. The place is loud, owing in part to the polished concrete floor, intended for high traffic and easy cleanup. “It’s not for everybody,” DiGirolamo explains. “I play to families.”

DiGirolamo is a stout man with a salt-and-pepper beard and warm eyes. He grew up along this stretch of coast, one of 13 kids who pitched in at the family seafood restaurant. “We wanted to be managers, but my uncles had those jobs.” Instead, DiGirolamo stuck to the kitchen, where he learned his grandmother’s cooking secrets, measuring her handfuls of ingredients so he could re-create the recipes.

The cooking line at Phil's Fish Market
Saucepans of Phil's cioppino, each one made to order.
The line inside Phil's Fish Market
The line of hungry (and patient) customers.

The most popular item on the menu is cioppino, which DiGirolamo claims gets its name from everyone “chipping in” to the pot depending on what came in from the sea that day. His version contains an astonishing amount of seafood—scallops, prawns, calamari, mussels, fish, clams, and a cluster of Dungeness crab legs poking out of the top. Servers deliver gadgets for cracking shells and prying meat along with cheap plastic bibs that, while not stylish, do keep your clothes safe from stains.

Some years back, DiGirolamo began giving cioppino cooking demonstrations. He recalls, “One day, a guy comes in, looks at the cioppino in the electric wok, and says, ‘I want that.’ He gave me a $100 bill, I gave him the cioppino and the wok. . . and then I went out and bought five more woks.”

A Taste of California

Monterey Bay Cioppino

This stew is famous in San Francisco. But just down the coast, we found a version we like even better.

Read about some of our other trips around the country, in the name of recipe research:

What's your favorite regional specialty? Let us know in the comments and we might add it to our list of research destinations.

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