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

(Continued from page 1)

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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

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Ben Alfiero Sr. also owned Pine Tree Paper Co., which was located where Spread restaurant is now, and his brothers owned a meat market on India Street, where Coffee By Design is now located.

Nick was 16 at the time and already going out with Kathleen. Ben was 10 or 11, and Mike was 6.

"Me and some friends would ride our bikes down here, we were 10 or 11 years old, and we would hang out back and catch eels," Mike Alfiero said. "Then my uncle and my dad would put us to work for two or three hours sweeping whatever, and we'd get five or six bucks at the end of the day."

Eventually, Ben Sr. fell in love with the business, and he started trying to convince Nick, who had left Maine for a corporate job that kept him moving around, to come home and help him run it.

So, in 1976, Nick and Kathleen left New York City and returned to Maine.

As Nick puts it: "Gray suit, briefcase. Back to boots and mud and fish guts."

The Alfiero brothers say that if you work in seafood long enough, immersed in what Mike calls "the wetness, the fishiness, the smells, the culture in and around it," it all becomes second nature.

Even the stink.

Nick remembers going into a Falmouth record store a year after he moved back to Maine. He had just come from work.

"I walk in the store and I'm kind of flipping through the vinyl, and the next thing you know this big golden retriever comes up, and he's starting to lick my shoes, and he's licking my leg and he's smelling me and I know what it is," he recalled. "So I kind of push him away. The next thing I know, I hear the owner -- it was a couple -- I hear the woman say 'Jim! I've told you a hundred times to clean that dog. It stinks like crazy.'

"I'm standing there going, 'Oh, no.' "

Alfiero turned around and walked out the door. He said the experience taught him a lesson about changing clothes before going out in public.

 'GRITTY WAS 40 YEARS AGO'

Back then, the Portland waterfront was a seamy place that could be a little scary. There were none of the little boutiques, tony shops and fine dining restaurants that fill the Old Port today. Harbor Fish saw its share of shady characters wander in the door off the rough-and-tumble streets.

"I remember people walking in here and they'd open up their coats and have all kinds of things you could buy," Kathleen Alfiero said, laughing.

"Guys were fencing stuff," her husband added. "You know when they say 'the gritty waterfront?' This isn't gritty. Gritty was 40 years ago. It was very colorful."

Nick recalls his Uncle John as a big, burly guy, hard drinking, married five times, and "waterfront smart."

"He befriended all of the wrestlers who used to come down to the Portland Expo," Alfiero said. "They had wrestling and boxing every week, and he knew them all. They would come in and he would flip over 15 wooden boxes (filled with fish) out back and he would start cooking lobsters and they'd all sit around. Big guys.

"At the end of it, this guy would pass my uncle a wad of green bills, like, thanks, you know, and here's some tickets to tonight's show."

One story in the new cookbook is likely to make both environmentalists and sushi lovers gasp in horror. In 1969, two brothers came into the market with two bluefin tunas they had harpooned offshore, weighing 500 to 600 pounds each. John Alfiero told them he couldn't sell that much tuna, but he would cut them into steaks and get what he could for them.

(Continued on page 3)

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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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