We got the email from Zio several days before we were to meet. That we were notified of his choice for our food group so far in advance was unusual for Zio. His normal procedure was to glean help from anyone he can and then, just a day or so before the assigned date, come up with a destination. So confident was he of his choice of Astoria Seafood that in his email to us he even did the research about the liquor status of the place.
“They don’t serve alcohol, but you can bring your own beer,” he wrote as if beer or something stronger was one of the criteria for our group. It wasn’t, but it was nice of him to think of what was truly important to us.
Eugene’s concern was more spiritual. Eating meat, he explained, also by way of email, would be in conflict with his Ash Wednesday obligations. It was too late to reschedule to Fat Tuesday, and the next day was Valentine’s Day, so we stuck with the original Ash Wednesday date and assured Eugene that since we were eating at a place called Astoria Seafood, there should be no conflict.
To further assure Eugene, Zio dryly added: “Wednesdays they serve tilapia from the Gowanus Canal.”
“Yeah, and don’t worry Eugene, it’s BYOA. Bring Your Own Ash,” Gerry quipped.
And so Eugene did—the ash in the middle of his forehead—its mark adding to his already shadowy complexion.
When I arrived, Zio was in the process of securing our table in the combination seafood market and restaurant. The place was bustling; maybe others were observing Ash Wednesday by confining their diet that evening to fish. I could hear Spanish, Greek, and Arabic spoken from the customers (mostly men) at the restaurant’s tables as Zio and I surveyed the offerings on ice.
A young man wearing a Yankees’ baseball cap came over.
“Hey, how are you? “ Zio said to him.
The man smiled and stared somewhat dumbfounded.
“You remember me? From the last time I was here?” Zio asked hopefully.
“Oh yeah, sure I do,” the man, who said his name was Matt replied as if he actually meant it.
From then on, Matt served as our guide and host in the somewhat complicated maze that was Astoria Seafood.
“You pick out what you want,” Zio tried to explain to me. “They weigh it and then you tell them how you want it cooked.”
It wasn’t as easy as it sounded mainly because it was almost impossible what fish to choose much less how to prepare it. Should we stick with a whole fish? Something filleted. Fried? Broiled? Grilled? Raw? And what about shellfish? Those oysters, wherever they were from, were tempting. There were just too many options to consider.
We had to go through the procedure with Gerry and Eugene, but not Mike from Yonkers, who we learned when Gerry arrived wasn’t coming and had no other excuse than that he just forgot that we were scheduled to meet. There was no word at all from Rick and after waiting about fifteen minutes, figured he was a no show as well. The next day he attributed his not being there to what he called a “brain fart,” thinking Ash Wednesday was the following week.
So there were just four of us and we tried to order accordingly. Zio decided on a large freshly caught fluke that he asked to have deep fried. I saw others at a table sharing a platter of scallops and shrimp that looked like it was prepared scampi style. I asked Matt if he could put together a total of two pounds of shrimp and scallops and make up a scampi for us. He assured me he could.
I also noticed that everyone eating at the tables were indulging in a salad served on a large platter and coated in a feta laced dressing. “We have to have one of those,” I told Zio.
“Oh we will,” he said with confidence.
“And what about a cup of fish soup,” I said hopefully.
Matt our server looked at me.
“Fish soup for all of us,” I said to him. No one argued.
The soup came out first, a light tomato broth overflowing with pieces of white fish.
“There’s a lot of fish in here,” Zio said to Matt.
Matt smiled at Zio, his new”old friend.”
“I made sure of it,” he said.
The salad came out next along with a platter of toasted French bread coated with olive oil. It tasted as good as it looked. The fried fluke, filleted and battered in a light coating of bread crumbs, followed. The fish was big enough to feed six, but we were just four. Not that there was a problem. We worked through it with ease.
From behind the counter, one of the chefs was calling to Eugene. It was very noisy in the place and he cupped a hand to his ear. “What?” Eugene mouthed back to him.
The chef called out something again and Eugene nodded.
“What’s he saying,” I asked Eugene.
“I have no idea,” Eugene said.
Another waiter came over. “He wants to know if you want the lemon potatoes.”
Lemon potatoes? How could we resist?
The potatoes quickly appeared, halves of skinless potatoes, tender and tinged with lemon.
The addictive crunchy bread had long since disappeared and when the shrimp and scampi arrived on a gargantuan platter swimming in garlicky oil also flavored with lemon, we knew we needed more bread to soak up the “juice.”
“I’m sure I said two pounds,” I told our group as we stared in disbelief at the quantity of crustaceans in front of us.
“You did. I was there.” Zio remarked as he speared a scallop and swirled it in the sauce.
The mercury level in our blood rising fast, we were nearing exhaustion. Despite our best efforts, the four of us just could not finish the scampi. In fact, there was enough left for a substantial snack.
Matt brought our tab. We were considerably over our usual budget of $20 per person. Eugene deciphered the scrawl on the tab.
“They charged us for almost four pounds of shrimp and scallops,” he said shaking his head.
“That’s not right,” I said. “I told him two pounds.”
And then we just shrugged it off. The food was very good. And we could justify going over budget because we were minus two of our members. With six in attendance we wouldn’t have had to order anything else and would have easily come close to our $20 allotment.
We had the remains of the scampi wrapped up.
“Take it,” Gerry said to Zio. “You deserve it for picking this place.”
Zio grabbed the bag. “Now I know what I can give the Colonel for Valentine’s Day,” he said. “Who needs chocolates when you can have day old shrimp and scallop scampi.”
37-10 33rd Street