September 4, 2013

Harbor Fish Market: A whopper of a story

Portland's monument to fishmongering, a 47-year-old family business, has had a remarkable life.

By Meredith Goad mgoad@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Nick Alfiero, one of the three brothers who own Portland's Harbor Fish Market, says that whenever anybody talks about their 47-year-old family business these days, they always throw out the word "iconic."

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Alice Hamilton of Scarborough, a regular, exits the Harbor Fish Market.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Bie Wu of Portland studies her options at the market.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

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How does that make him feel? Good, right?

"Old," he said with a wry smile. "Old, to tell you the truth."

If you don't know Harbor Fish and its (sorry, Nick) iconic red storefront on Custom House Wharf, you either don't like seafood or you've been living under a big Maine granite rock.

Nick, Ben and Mike Alfiero are the fishmongers who are responsible for mussels being on practically every restaurant menu in Portland.

And if you've ever tucked a couple of live lobsters underneath your airplane seat, you have the brothers to thank. They helped design the box.

The front of their store has been photographed and painted so many times that in the mid-1990s they had the image trademarked.

Julia Child visited once, and celebrities from Billy Joel to Patrick Dempsey have stopped by to purchase seafood.

Now the Alfieros have published their first cookbook, titled simply, "Harbor Fish Market" (Down East Books, $29.99). It is filled with tips on buying, storing and cooking seafood, but also with recipes like Nick's lobster shortcake, which he is convinced is going to be the next big thing.

Everyone in the big Italian family loves to cook and eat, but they rarely follow recipes themselves.

"We've had relatives and friends forever say, 'How did you do that?' " Kathleen Alfiero said of her husband Nick's creations in the kitchen. "And he says, 'I don't know.' They think he's just being secretive, but he never made the same (recipe) twice."

To record his family's favorite dishes for the book, Nick Alfiero cooked every day for six months, with Kathleen sitting at the counter documenting everything he did on a computer. (When it came time for photos, he churned out 27 recipes in just three days.)

"We tried to make a good balance of stuff," Nick Alfiero said. "We tried to keep them simple. I didn't want to go into 38 different ingredients, because most people I know work and don't have time, except on weekends maybe, to develop stuff."

'PACE LIKE NO OTHER'

At the fish market, Alfiero and his brothers work in close quarters out of a small, paper-strewn office where Nick takes or makes at least 200 phone calls a day, just steps away from the lobster tanks and the branzini, black sea bass, ocean perch, flounder and other fish chilling on beds of ice.

Selling fish from the Gulf of Maine is different from a farmer selling produce, Alfiero says. A farmer knows how much lettuce there is in his field, but who knows how much fish a boat will catch on any given day?

"On a typical day, I might be pushing hard to sell cod, or pulling in because there's no cod coming," he said. "It's sort of like the stock market, in a way. The pace is like no other. Every day is different."

On the market floor, Alfiero points to two posts about 20 feet apart and says that was the sum total of the original store his father and uncle started in 1966.

"We cut fish back there," he said, pointing to the back of the market. "There was a lobster tank over there. It was an old wooden tank that had glass in it."

Spending time with Alfiero and his family is like getting a firsthand lesson in Portland history.

Ben Alfiero Sr. took over control of the family business from his brother John in 1969. At the time, his only experience in the seafood industry had been lumping fish -- unloading them off of boats on the waterfront.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Kathleen and Nick Alfiero with the family's first cookbook.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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One of the large coolers displaying fresh seafood on the floor of Harbor Fish Market.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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The brothers Alfiero - Mike, Ben and Nick - stroll the waterfront.

Courtesy photo

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Steve Ponichtera of Gladstone, N.J., watches as retail clerk Luke Parker fills a bag with steamers. Ponichtera said he makes frequent trips to Maine to attend antique auctions and rarely goes home without a selection of seafood from Harbor Fish Market.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Retail clerk Jessica Spear checks the condition of lobsters in the holding tanks, a process that is repeated each morning and occasionally throughout the day.

Retail clerk Jessica Spear checks the condition of lobsters in the holding tanks, a process that is repeated each morning and occasionally throughout the day.

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FISH TACOS

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COD LOIN BAKED IN PARCHMENT PAPER

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LOBSTER SHORTCAKE

 


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