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At the Southeastern tip of the city, between a monotonously giant white Sysco warehouse and an inversely grungy line of loading docks stretching nearly half a mile off Packer Avenue, there’s a large, slate gray structure that’s about as architecturally interesting as an industrial building can get.
It’s the 60,000-square-foot headquarters of Samuels and Son Seafood, built for the company to custom specifications 6 years ago. It’s also the source of nearly all the seafood served in restaurants in Philadelphia.
Now run by fifth generation family members, Samuels and Son was launched in 1989, when Samuel D’Angelo decided to branch out from his family’s Ippolito’s fish market — where he started working at age 10 — and get into wholesaling.
The company’s wholesale territory now stretches from Northern Connecticut to Southern Maryland, and a fleet of more than 70 delivery trucks makes constant departures from the South Philly depot. (There’s also a Las Vegas division, which receives its fish shipments via air.)
Though many local chefs simply place seafood orders like all the other Samuels customers, they have an option no one else does: They can visit the warehouse in person.
Nicholas Elmi, chef-owner at Laurel and chef-in-residence at Morgan’s Pier (not to mention Top Chef New Orleans winner), likes to do a walkthrough at least once a month. His East Passyunk BYOB serves only a prix-fixe tasting menu, and he’s always looking for new types of seafood to introduce to his customers. He uses trips to this market and others to get inspiration for new dishes, checking out what’s on special, what has just come in, and what simply looks too good to pass up.
In early August, Billy Penn accompanied Elmi on one of this visits for a look at what goes on inside Philadelphia’s biggest fish market.
The Prep: Hairnets, insulated jackets and rubber boots
Before you enter the main warehouse floor, a bit of preparation is required. First there’s a safety waiver to be signed, and then there’s getting ready for the environment.
A row of identical puffy red jackets hangs just off the reception area for chefs or guests going on a tour — most of the space is kept at 35 degrees. Hats or hair coverings are a second must — thank health regulations for that mandatory fashion accessory.
No heels, open-toed shoes or sandals are allowed — the floors are often wet from melting ice — so if you’re not wearing boots or sneakers, you’ll be provided a sexy pair of wellies for non-slippery walking.
The Produce Room: Mushrooms and more
Strangely enough, the first room on the tour does not contain seafood at all, but produce. Samuels and Son started stocking specialty vegetable products around 3 years ago because local foragers were looking for a place to centralize their sales, according to company vice president Joe Lasprogata. Though he’s been in wholesale food supply for more than 30 years, 26 of them with Samuels, Lasprogata quickly realized that vegetables were a very different animal (so to speak), and hired an experienced produce manager to run the growing segment.
More than a dozen kinds of mushrooms were lined up along an eye-level shelf, but Elmi gave them only a cursory glance. He lingered a little longer near the uni, the sea urchin roe that’s long been prized in Japanese cuisine and has recently become one of the hottest ingredients on menus across the U.S.
The Main Room: Fresh fish from around the world
Even if you inhaled as deeply as possible, you’d be hard-pressed to notice any “fishy” scent inside the main storage space, which in fact holds thousands of pounds of raw seafood.
Giant metal racks that tower overhead fill the room, which has ceilings more than 30 feet high. On them are hundreds of kinds of fish from all corners of the globe. There’s hiramasa (amberjack) from Japan, giant West Coast tuna and sleek New England flounder. Nothing stays around longer than 3 days — and even that would be considered a long time.
Everything is arranged in sections like a grocery store, denoted by overhead signs that look like they came out of a giant labelmaker of the kind you’d use to organize files.
Elmi followed Lasprogata from aisle to aisle, stopping to handle some whole whiting, sniff some headless mako shark and admire monkfish, which he asked the on-site professional cutters to clean and turn into filets for him. (He often does his own fish butchering for Laurel, he explained later, but he was on a tight schedule that day.)
The Shellfish Room: More varieties than you can count
A separate room off the main area is covered in shellfish. There are oysters from Cape May and oysters from Puget Sound, clams from Rhode Island and clams from California. There are mussels and razor clams and scallops.
A query of “How many varieties of mollusks do you stock?” was met with a laugh. “Hundreds.”
Lasprogata mentioned a new variety of clam from the Pacific ocean, and pried one open for Elmi to taste on the spot. (He dutifully slurped it up, but didn’t seem all that impressed.)
The Lobster Room: 50,000 lbs of seawater
Conceptually most impressive is the lobster room, where 50,000 lbs of seawater are used in a closed fountain system to keep the crustaceans alive as they await shipment.
The water runs through special columns that replenish good bacteria and algae found in the ocean and is then piped across the room, where it flows from faucets set above stacks of plastic crates. Inside each of these crates are the lobsters, organized by size, and the seawater runs in a constant trickle between them.
When it gets to the floor, it drains into a holding area and is then filtered of lobster waste and back into the system for another round.
The Crab Room: Too much of everything
A whole separate room is devoted to picked and packaged crab. There are varieties in plastic containers and varieties in sealed cans. There is jumbo lump and regular. There is more of it than seems necessary, filling shelves that reach the ceiling.
“There’s barely a restaurant in America that doesn’t have crab on it in some shape or form,” observed Lasprogata. He and Elmi talked about the growing worry that crabs are being over-harvested and that the fishing industry will have to make some changes soon if it wants that segment to survive.
The Test Kitchen: Birthplace of the crispy fish jawn
At the end of the tour, just outside the cold zone, is a gleaming test kitchen. Though it’s mostly raw product that comes out of this facility, Samuels and Son is always working to come up with new ways to pitch different seafood to chefs, and being able to suggest new ways to prepare it is a big part.
Plus, the company also operates retail shop Ippolito’s, which doubles as a casual restaurant. Those crispy fish jawns that come in a giant pile for just 99 cents? This is where the idea was born.