How Sicilian fishermen made Monterey their home
A statue of Pietro Ferrante (above) at the foot of Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey
honors the contributions he and his fellow Sicilian immigrants
made to the local sardine fishery. Historic photos courtesy of California
History Room Archives, Monterey Public Library.
Photography by John Cox
A group of animated Sicilian-American men sit around a long wooden table beneath a light fixture fabricated from old fish traps. Every morning, from eight until 10 or 11, they sit and talk, enjoying each other’s company.
Noticing the espresso-stained demitasse cups and remnants of morning pastries scattered across the table, I am struck by the irony of a culture that values hours of conversation over a beverage that barely lasts a minute. Not bothered by empty cups, the men carry on their spirited banter in their native Sicilian dialects long after their drinks are finished.
This scene at Monterey’s Café Lumière is one of a few morning gatherings of Sicilian fishermen that take place every day in Monterey. Some of the men around the table at Café Lumière have lived in Monterey since the 1930s. Some were born here, some came as young boys and all have been friends for decades. Their parents came to fish the fertile waters of Monterey Bay and work in the local canneries. Growing up, they watched Cannery Row evolve from a bustling district of fishermen and fish processing plants to a line of tourist shops and restaurants.
They remember when their family members walked up and down Spaghetti Hill—the section of Monterey first settled by Sicilian immigrants, bordered by High St. to the west, Larkin St. to the east, Madison St. to the south and Scott St. to the north—at all hours of the day and night, to and from work on the boats and in the factories. They reminisce about the days when you could pluck an abalone the size of your head out of a local tidal pool and take it home for dinner.
As children, they washed dishes in local restaurants, worked on family boats and picked up odd jobs. Now, mostly retired, they have become pillars of the community, influential businessmen and successful entrepreneurs who have shaped Monterey’s fabric.
THE SICILIAN MIGRATION
The first Sicilian fishermen arrived in Monterey during the 1890s, joining already well-established Chinese and Portuguese fishing communities.
The Sicilians quickly made their mark.
By the early 1900s the vast majority of the local Sicilian community was involved in Monterey’s fishing and canning industries, and in 1906, the Sicilian immigrant Pietro Ferrante introduced the first lampara nets to the bay.
This type of net, commonly used in Sicily but adapted by Ferrante for use in Monterey Bay, was more efficient at catching sardines than those in use in Monterey at the time, and it quickly revolutionized the local sardine industry. This technological advancement, along with a strong demand from the Army during World War I, led to a spike in the annual production of canned sardines to 1.8 million cases by 1918 from just 300 in 1900.
In addition to innovation, the Sicilians brought to the region a strong culture and entire communities.
From the town priest to the local cobbler and butcher, Monterey’s Sicilian neighborhoods were practically self-sufficient, and they each reflected the different Sicilian fishing villages from which their residents had come.
Despite Sicily’s small size (similar to New Hampshire’s), the villages from which Monterey’s new immigrants had come were distinctly different—often everything from the foods to the customs and dialects varied from one town to the next.
Partly for this reason, Sicilians coming to the States often settled together with others from the same town. A young man would find a job in Monterey, for example, invite his brother to join him, and before long an entire community would be transplanted, bringing its particular customs with it. And after their arrival, mothers encouraged their sons to marry someone with links to the same town or village that they had come from so that they could be sure whom they were welcoming into the family.
Still, once in Monterey, the Sicilians overcame their differences and built a thriving, predominantly supportive and inclusive community that was united by strong cultural pride and a desire to hold on to Sicilian traditions.
Community was and is incredibly important, both back in Sicily and within Monterey’s Sicilian community. It was not uncommon for Sicilian weddings to have 500 or 600 guests, all of whom were close friends or family. And when the first-born son arrived, he was almost always named after the paternal grandfather, and the second son, after the maternal grandfather.
In many households, while the men were out fishing, the women handled the family finances and much of the daily decisions. If a new boat was needed or a loan was required to be taken against the family home for more boats and equipment, it called for the matriarch’s blessing.
Beyond being exceptional cooks, many Sicilian women proved to be shrewd investors, buying prime real estate whenever possible. This is one key reason why local Sicilian families enjoyed continued business and financial success even after the downturn in local fisheries.
By 1951, the Sicilian community owned more than 30% of local businesses and real estate in Monterey. Local fish populations were decreasing, however, and the next generation of Sicilians had begun branching out, looking for opportunities in other industries.
Because food played such a major part in everyday Sicilian life, it made sense that many young Sicilians of this generation turned to the restaurant industry.
Sicilians founded many of Monterey’s early restaurants, and even today, some of the area’s most recognized restaurant names, like Bert Cutino, owner of the iconic Sardine Factory, and John Pisto, the retired founder of the Whaling Station, boast a strong Sicilian heritage.
Other descendants of Sicilian fishermen who over time established themselves in the Monterey Peninsula food world include Philip and John Coniglio, grandchildren of Pietro Ferrante and founders of the beloved Mediterranean Markets of Carmel and Monterey, respectively, and their children, Jason Coniglio, owner of the classic Monterey bar and lounge My Attic (first opened by his grandfather, Horace) and partner with his brother-in-law in Monterey Crepe Co., and Cara Mia Coniglio and her daughter, Tiana Lagemann, creators of the organic, seasonal catering company and pop-up dinner host, Loco Coco.
Today, most young Sicilians in Monterey are going away to college and getting degrees. Often they are returning home as lawyers, doctors and other professionals. Many still appreciate their Sicilian heritage, and some, like the Coniglios, are opening food businesses. Others have remained in fishing (see related story about the Tringali family on p. 41), but it is less common.
“Fishing is a good profession, but you have to be patient. The fish come in cycles and you can’t expect every year to be good,” one of the old fishermen explains. “Kids today don’t want to wait five years for the fish to return and then still be uncertain about how long they will stay.”
THE CATANIA FISH MARKET
To understand the importance of food to Monterey’s Sicilian-American community, it helps to experience open-air markets in Sicily itself. I visited the Catania market in January of last year. It was a clear, crisp morning, and a faint trail of smoke was rising above the snow-covered peak of Mt. Etna. Groups of men stood outside of the market around a large courtyard with a central fountain. Bundled in their coats, they talked and smoked, occasionally gesturing at a passerby to join them.
It was a weekday, around 10am, and yet the market was filled with shoppers. Small booths lined three narrow alleys and a large square surrounded by historic buildings and cobblestone streets. The sellers ranged from a single fisherman in a thick wool cap and worn sweater lifting a squirming octopus from a small cooler with his weathered hands to proprietors with 30-foot-long displays with dozens of fish and shellfish fanned across beds of ice.
In addition to countless varieties of seafood, many of which I could not identify, carts teemed with giant purple cauliflowers, baskets overflowed with large artichokes, and small butcher shops and dozens of other specialty food stores abounded. Some products were refrigerated; many were not. Local shoppers greeted vendors by name, asking questions and procuring an item or two from each of a number of different booths. Most people were only shopping for the day, or even a single meal, buying just enough to feed their families. The next morning they repeated the routine, checking to see what was fresh and creating a daily menu in their head as they perused the different stands.
Sicilians are fanatical about quality ingredients. The idea of cooking with a recipe is foreign; rather, they tend to prefer to start with the best ingredients and then use their culinary intuition, passed down by generations of great cooks, to create a perfect meal. An octopus is not simply an octopus—the intrepid Sicilian cook wants to know its story.
When was it caught? Who caught it? Was it in the sand or on the rocks? What was it eating? These are all questions that contribute to the quality of the octopus and, therefore, are important to the cook.
Coffee klatch (top): From left to right, Nino Campo, Tony Davi,
Peter Davi, Biagio Vultaggio, Gerry Flores, Domenico Mineo.
Bottom left: Monterey Fish Co. on Wharf 2 in Monterey;
Bottom right: from an open-air market in Catania, Sicily.
HOW TO COOK AN OCTOPUS
Back at Café Lumière in Monterey, Tony Davi explains how he prepares octopus.
“Most American chefs don’t know how to cook octopus. They cook it too much. The skin falls off, and it loses its texture.” He pauses for validation of this broad statement from the men around the table.
They nod and smile. Davi continues, “When I cook octopus, I bring water, salty like the ocean, up to a boil. I dip the octopus into the water then remove it. I then dip it again and remove it. I repeat the dip one more time and then gently submerge the octopus in the water. I let the pot simmer for 20 minutes and then let the octopus cool in the liquid.
You can’t touch the octopus while it is cooking because it will make it tense up and become tough. When the octopus is done, it is tender and flavorful but still has texture—it’s al dente.”
Whenever Sicilians talk about cooking, they are apt to be both passionate and opinionated.
They wax poetically about their mother’s wood-fired breads, gesturing toward their lips, eyes partially closed, to convey the bliss of the memory.
While they do not always agree on which ingredient is best or what method of preparation is superior, they do have one thing in common— their absolute love of food.
John Cox is the executive chef at Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar restaurant in Big Sur. He is a frequent contributor to Edible Monterey Bay.
THE STORY OF SALVATORE TRINGALI
Salvatore Tringali was born in the port town of Augusta, in Eastern Sicily.
During his childhood in the early 1900s the entire island was still recovering from the political turmoil that ensued after the unification of Italy in 1861. Financial pressure from the North, heavy taxes and a failed legal system had given rise to the Mafia and all but destroyed the Sicilian economy. Like many young Sicilians, and much to the chagrin of his father, Tringali saw no future in Sicily and decided to try his luck in America.
After landing on Ellis Island, Tringali made his way to Detroit. Accustomed to the mild Mediterranean climate, he found the winter unbearably cold and windy. The following spring, inspired by frequent letters exchanged with a cousin living in San Francisco, Tringali decided to journey west toward California. He caught a glimpse of the American dream in San Francisco.
He found gainful work on a fishing boat and invested much of his earnings in Bank of America stock. Within a few years, with the economy booming and his stocks soaring, he and his cousin planned to buy a small market together. By the summer of 1929 Tringali had almost enough in stock to buy the market. He reasoned that if the uptrend in stock prices continued, it would only be a few months before he could purchase the market and start building a secure future for his young family.
But on Oct. 24,1929 the stock market crashed, shattering Tringali’s dreams of buying a business. Suddenly disenamored with the city, he moved his family south to the small fishing town of Monterey.
Once again, Tringali began to build his fortune from the bottom. He made enough money working as a fisherman to build his own small boat. Fishing was productive during those years, and soon he had saved enough to build a larger vessel. By 1940 he was a well-established local fisherman living in Monterey and running his own boat. That all changed, however, in 1941 when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and America went to war. Suddenly, Italians were considered a security threat, and many were exiled from the coastal areas. In fact, Tringali’s wife and son were ordered to move 20 miles from the coast for six months. Because Tringali was a U.S. citizen, he was allowed to stay in Monterey to fish, but the U.S. government confiscated his boat for use by the military for patrolling the coast. In return, they offered him a $10,000 IOU but no means to continue fishing. Many local Sicilian fishermen headed to Seattle where they could rent boats, but it was difficult to make a living there while paying a high price for the boat and equipment. (Owning a boat or cannery in Monterey was an important status symbol and class indicator. One could not build wealth by working; they had to own and invest. This made losing one’s boat all the more painful.)
Later that same year, once again starting over, Tringali founded Monterey Fish Co. Despite many obstacles to overcome, neither the sardine collapse of the mid-1950s nor various financial challenges could derail his dreams and ambition. He became a pioneer of the modern seafood exporting business and built some of the area’s first freezers. Since its inception as a small local seafood market, three generations of Tringalis built the business into an international exporter of squid, sardines and other seafood, which now owns the brands: Sea Wave, Bono and Surf King.
Despite the growth of the company, now based in Salinas, you can still experience its history and soul at the original family-run seafood market at the end of the Municipal Wharf, which Tringali’s grandson, Sal, runs. You can also visit the nearby Wharf Marketplace, where Sal’s brother-in-law, Robbie, owner of Robbie’s Ocean Fresh Seafood, operates a retail fish counter.
In fact, if you explore the historic wharf, you can find many descendants, relatives and friends of Salvatore Tringali keeping Monterey’s venerable seafood industry alive. —JC
MONTEREY FISH CO.
End of Wharf #2, Monterey
290 Figueroa St.
The former executive chef at Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar, John Cox is now pursuing a number of projects, including serving as a partner and consulting chef at Cultura–comida y bebida in Carmel and chef-partner at The Bear and Star at the Fess Parker Ranch in Los Olivos. For more, go to www.chefjohncox.com or follow him on Instagram and Facebook.