32 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY march 14-20, 2024 www.montereycountyweekly.com Sal Tedesco is sharing a platter of puttanesca with a couple of friends, one of whom just popped in to say hi after returning from a trip and was invited to join the table for a long, casual lunch. The versatile pasta dish carries a fruity heat, tempered by the natural sweetness of tomato. A nutty brine from anchovy prevents the sauce from carrying on, and there is a husky quality to the dish as grassy notes contend with the cynical bite of capers. “That’s my go-to dish,” explains Tedesco, who owns Paluca Trattoria on Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey. “You just cannot go wrong with that dish—when it’s done well.” And it is done well, on that guests at the table— all Italian—agree. The restaurant is a hidden gem, tucked away from the crowds. But the kitchen and its owner have built a reputation, even among other restaurateurs. “He’s a cook,” says Chris Shake of Old Fisherman’s Grotto. “He gets it.” This is not the scene many imagine when they think about the Fisherman’s Wharf dining scene. There are many area residents who avoid the pier often jammed with tourists. Rick Beidoun, owner of Crab Louie’s, estimates that only 20 percent of his guests come from Monterey County. “I don’t understand,” says Tedesco. “What’s to avoid? Great food, great restaurants, great events.” Old Fisherman’s Grotto started as a small dining room with Sabu Shake welcoming guests in the 1950s. The destination now seats 200 and features innovative dishes from veteran chef Juan Ponce, along with their signature Monterey clam chowder. Ponce sources organic vegetables and, of course, fresh seafood from the bay. It’s a standard shared by other restaurants on the wharf, where there is a commitment by some kitchens to the local, sustainable ethic. Dominic Mercurio of Cafe Fina owns a farm, where he grows produce used in the restaurant. Even when seafood is not local, there can be a good story. Dominic’s brother, Sammy Mercurio of Domenico’s, travels to the waters off Alaska each year to catch sockeye, which he brings to the restaurant— owner to table. “They are beautiful red sockeye salmon,” he says—although the smoky, crispy and delicate bacon-wrapped salmon on a bed of risotto is tough competition. Dominic is a part owner of Domenico’s, which their uncle opened in 1981 as a fine dining establishment amid seafood spots. “We did white tablecloth service at Domenico’s,” Dominic recalls. “The stigma of the wharf was that it was a tourist trap.” Restaurants along the wharf are positioned to serve seafood, of course. And there are dishes common to almost all of them, including clam chowder and cioppino. The former perhaps a curious fixture, as most prepare it New England style. The Monterey-style pioneered at Old Fisherman’s Grotto resembles New England clam chowder, but Shake insists it is distinct. “It’s real creamy, like a bisque—with garlic,” he explains. “That was my dad’s recipe. It’s world famous.” There is creativity here, as well as longevity. Tedesco opened Paluca Trattoria in 2000 and it stands as one of the best Italian restaurants on the Peninsula. Cafe Fina started decades ago with family recipes for Italian seafood dishes, but Dominic Mercurio is most proud of the pistachio pasta, a plate he discovered in Sicily. “It was the best thing I ever had,” he recalls. “This is something nobody [here] has. I could eat it every day.” Kevin Phillips put a roasted vegetable tower on the menu of Rockfish Harbor Grill. At his other location, Abalonetti Bar & Grill, the team slips the local catch into items like the abalone BLT and sardine tacos. Kokomo’s in Grotto Fish Market offers a popular lobster roll. “You have a variety of restaurants that offer some of the same foods in different styles,” Shake says. “You have choices.” That’s why restaurant owners of the wharf don’t understand why some locals shun the strip. Sure, there are places that don’t meet expectations, but there are places that put great care onto the plates. “Everybody has to visit the wharf,” Beidoun observes. “It’s a destination on its own. It’s like in Europe—people watching.” First course Sal Tedesco, owner of Paluca Trattoria, a hidden gem just off the Fisherman’s Wharf main drag and an example of the quality and longevity of its restaurants. Olive You…The California Olive Oil Council is hosting its first in-person conference since you know when—and the public is invited to join its members for the informative (with some fun) event. In addition to seminars and discussions, there is fun stuff like guided tastings, an ice cream break, cocktail receptions, dinner and the annual awards ceremony. Tickets for the weekend, March 15-16, are $650 (discounts on the second ticket). Hyatt Regency Hotel, 1 Old Golf Course Road, Monterey. cooc.com. Cantina Can…Baja Cantina now does brunch. Their beloved huevos rancheros and breakfast burritos are joined by breakfast tacos, an egg sandwich, steak and eggs and more. Brunch is served Saturdays and Sundays from 11am-2pm. 7166 Carmel Valley Road, Carmel. 625-2252, carmelcantina.com. Lovers propose…The City of Pacific Grove will soon issue a request for proposals for the property that until recently housed The Grill at Lovers Point. Even before the RFP, city officials say that potential tenants are lining up for the popular location. Grill owner Joe Cavallaro closed the diner in February, after his lease ran out at the end of 2023. Crash Course…If you want to share your talent and passion for cooking with the public for profit, head to the Salinas Police Department on Thursday, March 21. No, you are not in trouble. They are hosting free workshops put on by the Monterey County Business Council to teach the ins and outs of launching your home kitchen business. Learn to stay above board with Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operations Permits and other permits and legal precautions. Salinas PD, 312 E. Alisal St., Salinas. 216-3000, montereycountybusiness.com. Get Somm…Lady Somm, a femaleowned business helping spread love and knowledge of wine, is opening in Carmel. Their grand opening fête is on Thursday, March 21 from 5-7pm. Don your beret and enjoy small bites, celebrations, and of course, wine. If you, like me, have done countless wine tastings but retain none of the information, be sure to check out their series of classes and workshops and take advantage of their grand opening special prices. The Barnyard, Carmel. (916) 799-2771, ladysomm.com. By Jacqueline Weixel morsels Send a bite to eatanddrink@mcweekly.com “What’s to avoid? Great food, great restaurants.” Eat + DrinK Daniel Dreifuss Bay Watch Some of Monterey’s most admired restaurants are on a strip that some residents avoid. By Dave Faries