Thursday, March 17, 2011
Carmel native Ron Aliotti knows as much about fish as Eric Schlosser knows about fast food. As a kid, he worked down at Fisherman’s Wharf, filleting fish for local party boats and occasionally working as a deck head. By 1969, at the age of 17, he began fishing commercially for king, sockeye, pink and silver salmon in Bristol Bay, Alaska. The guy bleeds saltwater.
But after making a living on the water for four decades, Aliotti threw in his hook and rod about eight years ago.
“I eventually got out of fishing [in California] because they don’t know how to manage the resource here like they do in Alaska,” he says. “It became so difficult to make a living.”
Fortunately fishing wasn’t Aliotti’s only passion. He and his friend, restaurant owner-chef John Pisto of Whaling Station fame, have teamed up on gastronomic adventures all around the globe. Over a glass of Morgan Syrah at his house, Aliotti reminisces about his tasty travels with Pisto.
“The marketplace at Palermo, [Sicily]… there’s nothing like it,” he says. “In Croatia, we stayed with a friend that farms conch, clams and mussels and has a restaurant.”
Back home from his travels, though, Aliotti quickly realized that retired life didn’t do it for him.
“I got bored,” he says. “I couldn’t fish anymore and that’s what I love to do. I wanted to do something I’m good at.”
He harkened back to his younger years, when he learned from the old school how to smoke salmon in Alaska.
“There were fellas from the Great Lakes smoking 17-pound salmon using a 50-pound drum,” he says. “It made a big impression on me as a teenager.”
One of the key details among many he learned from the fishermen was using only hardwood alder chips for flavor and a consistent smoke. He didn’t know the business of buying and selling, though, so he spent several months working for his cousin, Joe Aliotti, who owns Papa Joe’s Seafood. A year ago, Ron Aliotti opened California Star Seafood, which specializes in fresh seafood and smoked salmon that is, in a word, unsurpassed.
One taste of the salmon on a toasted bagel with fresh capers, cream cheese and onions proves habit-forming. The fluorescent red flaky flesh is moist, uniquely smoky and sweet, highlighted by a hint of brown sugar.
“I’ve established a base of loyal customers that is just amazing,” Aliotti says in between bites. “Now, people get mad at me when I run out.”
The smoking process begins with brining: Aliotti soaks the salmon in a proprietary blend that includes kosher salt and a little teryaki for 36 hours in a cool, steel vat. Then, after towel-drying the fish, he starts the smoking procedure over the hardwood alder chips for seven hours and intermittently dabs moisture off each piece with a paper towel.
Aliotti recently expanded his repertoire of smoked seafood and there have yet to be any disappointed patrons.
“If you haven’t tried [Aliotti’s] smoked fish, go for it,” says Katie Reneker, a former teacher, career foodie, Aliotti neighbor and mother of two. “Serious yum. My kids are addicted.”
Some of the smoked offerings he sells at the local farmers markets include filleted or whole Monterey sardines ($5-$6/pack), Alaskan, Washington and Oregon king salmon ($16-$18/pound), ahi tuna ($12-$14/pound) and a smoked salmon spread ($6/8-ounce tub).
Aliotti also sells an abundance of fresh, never-frozen seafood year round including Fanny Bay oysters ($12.60/dozen), whole Dungeness crab and crabmeat (market price), extra large cocktail shrimp ($8.99-$9.99/pound), petrale sole (market price) and grenadier ($6.99).
The former seaman sources his seafood from buyers all over the Peninsula and commercial vessels in Moss Landing, but won’t divulge any names.
“It’s not necessary to know where I buy it, just that I have it,” he says. “Everything is always fresh. Anything I have that I don’t [sell], I smoke. My loss is minimal because I’m a fisherman and know what I sell.”
His days at sea netted more than a gift for seafood selection – they also scored some entertaining stories. One of his most memorable moments occurred while he was fishing for Monterey spot prawns with his cousin in Carmel.
“We were pulling up our shrimp pots and there were killer whales around and all of the sudden, a seal jumps on the stern of our boat,” Aliotti says. “We just let him wait there till the whale was gone. In those days, I remember catching 200 spot prawns a day.”
Aliotti donated his first vessel – a 32-foot Monterey double-ender named after his wife, Francesca – to the city. It currently sits above the entrance of the tunnel leading to New Monterey.
That represents a catch for this community. His fish, meanwhile, is a catch for local tastebuds.
“It’s the softest and most delicious smoked fish I’ve ever had,” Reneker says.
CALIFORNIA STAR SEAFOOD is available 4-8pm Tuesdays at Monterey Bay Farmers Market; 10am-2pm Saturdays at Oldtown Salinas Farmers Market; 8am-2pm on the second Sunday of every month at Alvarez Farmers Market and Toro Park Farmers Market. Call 521-3766 for more information.