Thursday, February 26, 1998
You could say that Dominic Mercurio knows the wharf pretty well. He's spent some time there over the last 30 years. "A bunch of us used to come down here every day in the summer time," he recalls. "We were 10 or 11, and would leave home in the morning and not go back until dark. We''d be fishing every day, catching little smelts or mackerel. Parents didn''t ever have to worry about us--we''d never get in trouble. Unless we were caught diving off the buildings, into the Bay."
Some years later, Mercurio''s favorite roof-top diving board would house his restaurant below. Named after his mother, Josephina, Cafe Fina has been specializing in homemade pasta and fresh fish since 1989. "When the guys from the local fish company eat out," he remarks, "this is where they come. When you grow up in the fishing industry, you know what fresh fish is."
Mercurio is part of the living legacy of an industry that once was the backbone of Monterey''s livelihood, one that enticed the imaginations of a unique breed of people from all around the world who were drawn here to make their living from the sea. The fishermen who settled on the shore of the Monterey Bay followed a harvest that would begin locally with sardines, then ventured north to Alaska for salmon and later headed for South America for tuna, seasons that are still observed today.
"My father, Jean, is retired now, but still fishes with my brother on that boat," Mercurio points to one of the many photographs lining the walls of Cafe Fina. "He was born in a French province of North Africa, one of a group of Sicilians who went there to fish the sardines and got kicked out during the French Revolution there in the ''50s. That''s how he and his five brothers ended up coming here, for the sardines."
As the son of a fisherman, it becomes a rite of passage to learn those skills firsthand. "When I was 13 years old, they were predicting a slow season so a lot of the guys took their sons out, instead of a partner for a full share. We lived all summer in a little place called Egegik. It was fishing village with just a mess hall and bunk house. I loved it so much, I went up for the next 19 years. It was a great way to grow up, spending the summers fishing and the winters working in the restaurants."
Coming from a culture that knows how to catch a fish and cook it, too, Mercurio started out working for his uncle and restaurateur, John Pisto, first at the Captain''s Gig and later at the Whaling Station. Beginning as a dishwasher and working his way up, he later partnered with Pisto, opening Domenico''s On The Wharf in 1981. Eight years later, Mercurio was ready to strike out on his own.
Not surprisingly, his menu celebrates a Sicilian heritage style of cooking with selections like homemade raviolis that may be filled with crab or smoked salmon, or the combination seafood over linguine-cioppino, in the local vernacular and the calamari with peas and pasta. Mercurio also takes pride in the wood-burning brick oven he installed for producing the characteristically crisp crust on a variety of pizzettes. "You can''t beat the puttanessca," he insists. "It''s loaded with black and green olives, garlic, capers, anchovies, chili peppers and tomato sauce."
The brick chicken is also in demand, marinated in fresh rosemary and cooked crisp, weighted under bricks. Blackened salmon and snapper, zesty with just the right amount of heat, make deliciously satisfying lunch fare served over cool, crisp baby greens.
It''s being known for fish just-out-of-the-water and pasta that''s rolled out each morning--not to mention Gram''s recipe for homemade cannolis--that gives Cafe Fina the distinction of a "local''s spot" in a predominantly tourist neighborhood.