A Fishmonger You’ll Want to Hug
Fresh fish and a friendly vibe keep locals coming to JP Seafood
By Kai Wada Roath
Photos by Austin Goldin
At 5:45 on a rainy winter’s morning, I’m in a truck with Joey Pucci and Samuel Anderson, headed for San Francisco’s Pier 45 to pick up a few thousand pounds of Dungeness crab. Joey is the owner of JP Seafood, a small fish market nestled inside Dan’s Fresh Produce stand on Central Avenue in Alameda. He is famous for supplying crab feeds throughout the Bay Area and even as far away as Sacramento.
As we drive over the Emperor Norton Bridge*, we share a laugh on discovering that all three of us were born under the sign of the fish, Pisces. “I was born on an island, my initials are S.E.A., I’m a Pisces, and I work in a fish market,” says Samuel, who first started working at JP Seafood when he was in high school. Four years later, he has a college degree in criminal justice, but he still loves working for Joey Pucci.
The other guy in the truck? I’m just an admiring customer who wants to know more about how Joey runs his business and was bold enough to ask to ride along.
The first time I stopped at JP Seafood, I stared into the glass case and thought, “Everything looks like it has just been pulled from the sea.” As I bought some rock cod to batter and fry, I listened to Joey Pucci engage in jovial conversations with his patrons about their day-to-day lives. Multiple customers gave the fishmonger a hug as they said goodbye. It is not often you see people wanting to hug someone who has been cutting fish all morning.
After that, I began stopping by JP Seafood when I needed prawns for my Mom’s famous cioppino, oysters for the Thanksgiving oyster stuffing, or anchovies to put on a picnic baguette. Gradually, I found myself popping in randomly for a small slab of peppered smoked salmon just because I was strolling by. One time, when I went there for butterfish (aka black cod) to make misoyaki, I found the shop closed. A paper sign said, “Sorry. Dad took a fall. Be back as soon as I can.” I changed my dinner menu rather than buy the fish elsewhere.
Nothing Gets Thrown Out
Joey has many nicknames—Fishboy, Little Puch, Big Puch—but most people call him JP. He talks about his great-grandfather’s wholesale fish business, Joe Pucci and Sons, which dates back to 1918. When the family sold it in 1992, the name went with the business, so Joey adopted JP Seafood when he opened his fish stand in 2003.
“I started working in the seafood business when I was 12,” says Joey, “and I knew what I was going to do with my life even at that age. I always wanted to work for myself, selling fresh fish, and I [continue to] want to explore and find a better way of doing it. I like to hand select all the seafood that goes in my market because I want to control the quality.”
Joey explains that by going directly to Pier 45 he can pick out “sushi grade” fish that is especially fresh. “My fish look bright, not tired; they smell like the ocean.” (By contrast, the seafood a shopper buys at a big chain supermarket might well have sat in a warehouse for weeks.) Another way Joey ensures freshness is by buying only as much as he knows he will sell immediately, so nothing gets thrown out. He feels there is too much waste in the fishing industry. “Most people in fish retail try to sell everything, but not everything sells, so it’s a loss of life. I have less than 1% of waste because I do not overbuy. I would rather run out of fresh fish.”
Joey continues to detail his views on how to run a responsible seafood business: “Now, with airplanes, you can get fish from New Zealand the next day, but what are you selling? Is it a resource that is already overfished? Is it overly exploited? Is that what you want to sell? … I’m about the planet.”
“I Love to Mong Fish”
During the visit to Pier 45, Joey shows me where the crabs are cooked. We load up the crab and a mountain of fresh ice for the display case, and he takes me in and out of seafood processor warehouses, showing me how to assess the quality of recently caught fish. While Joey looks around at the fish in silent judgement, he’s still always friendly JP, greeting and shaking hands with almost everyone he meets. Everybody knows him.
I ask a few random questions, like, “How do you feel about the name fishmonger?”
“I love it … there [are] not a lot of us … it’s fun to put on your tax return … I love to mong fish!” he says with a laugh.
And since JP has been in the fish market business his whole life, I ask his opinion on other fish businesses: “What do you think of Swan Oyster Depot?”
“I love those guys,” he says with a gleam in his eye.
“Tokyo Fish in Berkeley?”
“I’ve known Lee Nakamura since I was 12. His friends call him Cubby because that was his favorite Mouseketeer as a kid. If I don’t have what someone is looking for, I send them to Tokyo Fish. Lee truly cares about his market and is there every day. He’s a great guy who works with a heart and smile.”
We return to the JP Seafood stand, which Joey refers to as his “Sanctuary of Sanity,” and I linger to ask customers what they are buying and what they plan to make with it.
Calvin, who played football in junior high with Joey, is picking up ingredients for bagna càuda, an Italian anchovy and garlic dip that is served hot over a little burner. Another customer buys some bay shrimp for his “California classic” avocado salad, and the next chooses some ahi tuna for her spicy poke recipe, which she shares with me. She also puts in a special request for salmon collars. A customer named Carmen asks for filet of sole for a version of coquilles Saint-Jacques, which she serves on a traditional giant scallop shell. “I shop here because [the fish is] so fresh, and it’s a local business,” she says.
JP Seafood doesn’t have a website, their last posts on social media were over two years ago, and rarely does Joey read or send email. He lives in the moment, giving his full attention to the person his eyes meet with on the other side of the counter. In Alameda, fourth-generation fishmonger Joey Pucci is a household name, and JP Seafood thrives by word of mouth among locals. ♦
*I love the name Emperor Norton Bridge and have not called it the Bay Bridge in some five-plus years. It’s a bit of overlooked Bay Area history worth checking out.
Find JP Seafood at 2300 Central Avenue in Alameda.
Kai Wada Roath is the Ambassador of Confusion Hill and the host of the monthly Super Shangri-La Show at the historic Balboa Theater in San Francisco. When he is not taking his two young daughters on adventures, he is planning his next travels to collect folklore and visit ancient ruins around the world. His favorite things to eat are shrimp cocktail and French-dip sandwiches.
Freelance photographer Austin Goldin kicks his boots off in Alameda. He has photographed for his friend Kai’s writing for over 20 years, covering such topics as hot dog cart rivalry at the beach and the Nitt Witt Ridge folk-art house in Cambria. Austin is also known to put peanut butter on his hamburgers.
At JP Seafood, I often buy butterfish (aka black cod) for this Japanese/Hawaiian dish, which I fell in love with years ago at the historic Manago Hotel on the Big Island. Since the Manago keeps their recipe a secret, this is my own version. It’s hard to find black cod in markets since 90% of it gets exported. The recipe also works well with salmon.
—Kai Wada Roath
2 pounds black cod (aka butterfish)
½ cup sake
½ cup mirin (sweet Japanese cooking wine)
½ cup white sugar
1 cup white miso
A little grated ginger
A dash of Japanese soy sauce
Place fish in a shallow dish. In a saucepan, whisk the sake, mirin, and sugar until sugar is dissolved. Stir in miso paste, grated ginger, and soy sauce. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring until smooth. Let cool to room temperature, then pour marinade over fish. Cover and refrigerate for 48 hours.
Before cooking, wipe the excess marinade off with a paper towel and broil the fish until nicely browned. Butterfish cooks quickly, and you’ll want to watch to make sure the sugary marinade does not burn.
Serve garnished with thinly sliced green onions.