New York chef suggests trying the 'little guys' of the sea NEW SCHOOL OF THOUGHT

June 22, 1994|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff Writer

In yesterday's A La Carte section, a trout was misidentified in a photo.

The Sun regrets the errors.

It's too bad every copy of Pino Luongo's new cookbook "Fish Talking" doesn't come with a copy of Mr. Luongo, for such is the force of his charm and passion that he would have you doing in two minutes what it will likely take me a whole story to persuade you to try.

Mr. Luongo wants you to eat more fish.

Not more tuna, salmon and red snapper. Those are "the big guys" -- big fish, hugely popular, and expensive.

No, the fish Mr. Luongo wants you to eat are "the little guys," the mackerel, the whiting, the anchovy, the sardine, the black bass -- the small fish that pack a big taste wallop and don't make a big dent in your wallet. He's also an advocate for squid, clams, mussels and eels.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

"This is all fish that has an outstanding, incredible amount of flavor," Mr. Luongo says in his exuberant way, waving an unlighted cigar for emphasis. "And the sense of freshness that you have when you eat this fish, because of the size and everything else, is so immediate, is so refreshing, that I always find [that] much more appealing in my meals than the classic grilled tuna, which I'm sick of."

Mr. Luongo, who was in Baltimore recently to promote his book, comes by his fish fervor naturally. He was born in Florence, Italy, and spent many summers near his grandparents in coastal Tuscany. He was trained as an actor in Italy, but came to the United States in 1980, looking for a better life. He found work -- and his future career -- in an Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village. Since then he has opened a string of successful %J restaurants in New York, including the three featured in "Fish Talking": Le Madri, Coco Pazzo, Sapore di Mare. He also wrote a previous cookbook called "Tuscan in the Kitchen."

In all the restaurants, his goal has been to re-create the wonderful flavors of Tuscany he recalls from his youth, including the "little guy" fishes that were so dear to his grandfather's heart. He is determined to teach Americans to eat like Tuscans -- to give them that "taste of the sea."

"Food has to give you some memories of where it comes from," Mr. Luongo says. "Sardines do this trick, they always remind you of the sea, they remind you of sea breeze and freshness and salt. . . . The taste of the sea is not about salt only; it's like the essence of earth is dissolved in the water."

Locally, as well, some chefs are beginning to broaden the fish horizon for their customers. One is Ashley Sharpe, executive chef at Piccolo's in Fells Point. Among his offerings have been fresh sardines with a raisin and pine nut stuffing, and calamari (squid), fried and in other dishes such as seafood risotto. "Some people freak out when they see squid on the menu," he says, but "I've had fairly good luck [offering] different kinds of fish."

He recalls when he worked at Harbor Court Hotel, whitefish, steelhead trout and Arctic char were all on the menu at various times.

The presence last week of Arctic char on the menu for the Clinton administration's first state dinner given for the emperor and empress of Japan, is likely to encourage more consumption of that fish, which Mr. Sharpe describes as "sort of a cross between a flounder and a salmon" in taste.

Encouraging restaurant patrons to eat more unusual types of fish, Mr. Sharpe says, "is a matter of basically educating the wait staff about it and having them sell it." He encourages servers to try menu items so they can explain them thoroughly to their customers. Once you get folks to try something, they discover they like it and seek it out, he says.

Chefs have an obligation to offer diners new experiences, he says. "If you don't try it, nobody's going to end up eating" anything but standard fare.

Mr. Luongo credits his own zeal for the "little guys" to his grandfather, a fisherman and strong anti-fascist. "He was a very important image in my life when I grew up," he says.

"He taught me so much sense of respect, and so much sense of outrage, to any discrimination or abuse done to people who cannot defend themselves."

But his grandfather's sense of social justice didn't stop with people, Mr. Luongo says. It extended to any species he felt wasn't getting its due. "He had this sense of justice toward the fish."

And that, he says, explains his "stubbornness in presenting [the little fish]. . . . There is, for me, a reason to believe that gastronomy could have a much broader language." And it's not merely for the sake of cultural diversity, he adds: "Everywhere fisherman are in trouble because species of fish are disappearing. It's time to come back with an alternative."

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