Fish tales: How Charlottesville tops Florence

Editor's note: another of Christina Ball's profiles from Italy.

FLORENCE– When in Florence, eat steak. When at home, eat fish!

Italy may be surrounded by the blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea, but here in hill-framed Florence, it's surprisingly hard to catch a good fish.

Okay, I must admit that my apartment on Via del Parione happens to be next door to a chic little sushi bar called Rose's­ but Tuscan cuisine in general tends to be not only hearty, but also meaty. Florence is famous for its steak.

The bistecca alla fiorentina is a thick but very tender slab of T-bone steak grilled only long enough to be considered rare instead of raw. Like most other meats on the menu, the bistecca is to be served simply, with salt and olive oil as the only condiments. Elaborate sauces would be an insult to the cow­ in this case, grass-fed Chianina cows from the Val di Chiana, in southern Tuscany.

Another reason fish-lovers must swim upstream here is economics. Due to its relative scarcity (the Tyrennean fish is all but extinct, Massimiliano, my neighborhood pesciaiolo, or fishmonger, tells me) fresh fish is exorbitantly priced, both at the market and at area trattorias and restaurants. Which is why, after three weeks here, I find myself longing for the fresh and affordable fish at Seafood@West Main (in the Main Street Market) and the many and varied restaurants owner Chris Arseneault services back home.

This local former commercial fishermen guarantees the freshness of his Rhode Island fluke (aka flounder), his Carolina Shrimp, and his Alaskan Halibut. And he can also tell you where it came from (my morning tutorial started at a map), how it got to Charlottesville (truck or plane?), how and how long it traveled (ice or gel packs? one day or two?), how it's been stored (his ice machine cranks out 2,000 pounds a day), how to clean it (one needs finesse for a flounder!), and how you might prepare it (as in Tuscany, the simpler the better).

Arseneault's expertise may be the reason why he has been able to win over chefs from approximately 50 Charlottesville-area restaurants in just four years of operation. Though there are few restaurants dedicated exclusively to seafood in the 'ville, (Blue Light does a lot more than oysters, but Awful Arthur's is no more), fish is an option on just about every menu in town. From familiar names like Oxo and Escafé to newcomers Garden of Sheba and Zocalo to sushi-filled Asian Express and surprisingly seafood-strong Pizza Bella­ Arseneault has helped bring the coast a little closer. Before Seafood@WestMain came along, chefs without a fishing license were limited to buying fish from national vendors like US Foods or from Sam's Club.

In Italy's northern and central regions, fish is viewed with suspicion. Most Tuscans, for instance, will eat only fish purchased from a reputable pesciaiolo and cooked in their own kitchens. In the U.S., however, 70 percent of seafood is consumed in restaurants. Apparently, we have tended to trust our chefs more than our supermarkets.

But if Arseneault has his way­ and his well-stocked retail counter does most of the job for him­ more and more Americans will learn to eat the Italian way: fresh, familiar, and local. If cooking's a problem, well, then by all means, eat out. And while you're at it, order extra for your prosciutto-fed correspondent in Florence!


Chris Arseneault has filleted the fish competition.

PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO

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