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Mercato del Mare

An abbondanza of seafood & sushi wrapped in savvy

Mercato del Mare celebrates its third anniversary in business this June, yet it feels as if they’ve been a fixture in the North End for much longer.

Under the inspired direction of Liz Ventura and Keri Cassidy – two longtime friends and neighborhood residents – they have created an ever-evolving line of seafood products and services – including a popular, FREE Saturday afternoon “Shuck U” oyster-shucking classes!

Liz Ventura & Keri Cassidy

For those of us who’ve lived in the North End for decades, the del Mare  seafood “boutique” is a godsend; a unique blend of quality and convenience. Ever since Giuffre’s Fish Market on Salem Street closed and Bay State Lobster Co. fled to Saugus in ’96, honestly, you had to make the trek over to Southie to get fresh fish.

What I discovered upon visiting with Liz and Keri recently is that Mercato del Mare is a veritable abbondanza of seafood and sushi wrapped in savvy. So, how did it all begin, how has it evolved, and where is it headed?

“We started with the basics just to be safe,” said Liz, who admitted freely that she and Keri had little prior knowledge about the fish business at the outset. They researched local fish markets and interviewed suppliers and distributors with one goal in mind: “Selling fresh, reasonably-priced, highest quality seafood – both wild-caught and local fish – in a friendly, welcoming environment. That’s our goal,” explained Keri, “As simple as that.”

Their decision to locate on Salem Street was both purposeful and providential. “This street has served as the market basket of the North End for centuries,” explained Liz. “Even to this day, we have Polcari’s Coffee next door, Sulmona Meat Market and Albi’s greengrocer around the corner, the Wild Duck across the street, the DiPaolo & Rossi Meat Market at one end of Salem, Monica’s Mercato at the other, and Bova and Parziale bakeries just around the corner on Prince Street. It was a natural choice!”

What made that choice providential was that Calore Fruit shop at 99 Salem Street had just closed.  Giovanni Lavita, the shop and building owner, had decided to retire and was looking for another business to move into his location – a shop about the size of a children’s shoebox.

Giovanni Lavita

With a few handshakes, Liz and Keri were in business!

As you approach Mercato del Mare, your eyes are first drawn to a colorful array of freshly-rolled sushi displayed in the window. You step down to enter the store into a world literally swimming with seafood: a tank of live lobsters; a display case filled with cod, sole, tilapia and other fresh fish-of-the-day; and another case chock-full of Alaskan king crab, frozen shrimp, lobster casserole and, yes, even lobster mac-n-cheese.

The walls of the boutique are lined with a tasty collection of culinary delights: smoked bluefish, smoked salmon, escargots, pates, marinades, spice rubs, Japanese Panko breadcrumbs, jars of homemade seafood stuffing. And then there is the bookcase crammed with ten or so well-used cookbooks.

“Fish are so easy to cook”, says Liz, “yet many younger customers are oftentimes intimidated. Instead of asking them how many ounces or pounds [of fish] they want, we ask how many servings they need. We try to make people more comfortable.” “And the same is true for fish recipes,” adds Keri. “There are so many – often three or four – recipes for the same fish dish. Our clients are free to thumb through these recipe books and also ask our advice.”

“So what kinds of fish are favorites?” I inquire.

“Well, cod is always a favorite. Bostonians have an historic affinity for cod,” explained Liz. “But sole, haddock, mild tilapia and fresh-caught Atlantic salmon filets are favorites. As well as swordfish and tuna in the summer season.”

Mercate del Mare also carries a burgeoning array of freshly-prepared dishes –  from homemade shrimp egg rolls, fish cakes, crab cakes and seafood pot pies to shrimp arancini, Thai-style salmon with brown rice, and a new spring & summer favorite special – the lobster roll & clam chowder combo. “Our carryout business has grown exponentially since we first opened,” says Keri. “A reflection, I’m sure, of the increasing number of young professionals who now live in the North End and have busy schedules.”

But also a reflection of Liz and Keri’s catholic tastes when it comes to comfort food with or without a fin. Which bring us back to lobster mac-n-cheese. Why? Well, as it turns out, a growing number of restaurants all across the country, including the chefs at Grafton Street in Cambridge and Tremont 647 in Boston, for example, are combining lobster with various pastas and cheeses and featuring them on their menus. “Word has gotten out. And our lobster mac-n-cheese has become a pretty popular indulgence,” notes Liz, “just like our sushi.”

Sushi’s arrival at Mercato del Mare is a story in and of itself. “Initially we bought our sushi retail after we first opened,” says Keri, “but we were disappointed with the quality of the rice, so we discontinued offering sushi.”

Liz, Paul & Keri

Then, through some fortuitous contacts on Nantucket, Keri and Liz were introduced to Paul, who had been “rolling” for eight years.  Once Paul was installed in del Mare and began fashioning his eye-catching creations, word spread quickly across the neighborhood about his smart, delicious, wonderfully fresh sushi delights.  And his two savvy fishmongers couldn’t be happier.

Mercato del Mare
by Guild Nichols