It’s 4 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, and Joe Gurrera, the owner of Citarella, is being warmly greeted by a fellow fishmonger in the famous New Fulton Fish Market, the legendary depot for fresh fish, located in the Hunts Point neighborhood of the Bronx. Gurrera stands out, wearing clean blue jeans and a navy knit sweater and sporting tanned skin and bright white teeth—not unexpected of a self-made man who bought an Upper West side fish shop (also called Citarella) in 1983 and turned it into a multi-million dollar business. Despite this, Gurrera is at ease in the noisy, cold and damp cement warehouse, alongside grizzled longshoreman in hoodies, Mets caps and tan work boots. Although today it’s primarily for the cameras, it’s clear that when Gurrera hooks fish and pours ice onto whole fish waiting to ship that he’s done it many times before.
Gurrera has been a fixture in the market since buying a chunk of lot space, under his wholesale company Lockwood & Winant in the mid-80s. Gurrera says his prime seat at the table in this warehouse is how Citarella, which originally opened in 1912, is consistently able to get the freshest stuff. “It’s all about relationships. I’m the most high-profile guy in the market,” says Gurrera.
He comes in around six every morning to sign checks and to touch base with his workers, in the market and in the massive production area across the street. It would be easier to send an assistant to do these tasks (as well as the almost daily stops at his three New York City, two Hamptons and one new Greenwich, CT, store), but Gurrera says he’d miss the camaraderie and control. “This is how I made myself, my reputation and my career. The bigger I get, I can’t touch everything. But I have a passion for dealing with the best meat, the freshest seafood…” says Gurrera.
Freshness and passion don’t appear to be simple buzzwords here—freshness, in particular, is more like a religion. Fish caught in Montauk or New Jersey could be in the ocean one day and in the display case at Citarella the next. If the fish is coming from Canada, the Great Lakes or Florida, it’s maybe a day or so longer. Gurrera talks effusively about how passionate he is about food, which could come across as insincere, if not for the brusque nature with which such platitudes are delivered, as well as the use of occasionally colorful language.
Ask Gurrera about business, and his answers come rapidfire. His favorite steak? New York Strip—and you won’t get a better one than the one he sells. “Best piece of meat you’re going to eat as far as flavor. Sear three to four minutes on each side and salt and pepper—that’s it.” Get into a conversation about the fresh pasta being packaged at 4:15 a.m. and he points out that not only has the pasta chef making it been working with him for 23 years, but that every single prepared food item is held to the same standard as the fish and meat. “We don’t use cheaper ingredients just because we’re cooking it.” Discussing his holiday plans, he shares the components of his traditional “Feast of Seven Fishes” seafood menu, saying, “I do more than seven fishes because of who I am.”
What customers should expect is fish, meat and produce that’s extremely fresh. They’ll find foods not seen in most grocery stores, from foie gras to raw clams to (all prime) sirloin sliders and chocolate mousse. There’s something for all chefs: For those short on time, there’s pre-cleaned and ready to use okra, squash, zucchini and ready to bake lasagnas and quiches (including Lorraine, broccoli cheddar and spinach mushroom varieties, in two different sizes). For adventurous cooks, there are gorgeous ingredients for gourmet meals, like truffles and scallops from Cape Cod and Natucket bays. The cheese section, like the entire Greenwich store, is twice as big as that of the company’s fromage aisles in the city. (As with all things concerning food, Gurrera is specific about how he likes his favorite cheese—the Citarella truffle variety—served: “With crostini, not the biscotti that my wife loves.”) The fish department has the appearance of a museum or couture clothing shop, with a literal spotlight on live lobster, clams, oysters, smoked trout, whitefish sable and more, from nearby Montauk and Fisher’s Island and farther flung Maine and Nova Scotia. It looks like it’s just come out of the ocean—and in most cases, it did.
For foodies who are passionate about how fresh their food is and that they’re getting the finest stuff available, Guerrera is a fellow spirit who has his hands in the business (literally). Even with the Connecticut expansion, Guerrera says he has no plans on changing his hands-on model: “This is my life.”