Want to know if Nick D'Amato's fish are fresh? Shake hands with him.
One solid grip will tell you that he pulled his catch of red snapper and sea trout out of the Catalina Channel maybe three hours before. They are the hands of a fisherman, a man who brought his trade from his native Italy to Newport Beach, who sails on the sea each day in his tiny dory as other Southern Californians negotiate the freeways.
Every morning, nearly every day of the year, around 4 a.m., D'Amato and several of his fellow Newport Beach dory fishermen motor their little craft 14 miles out into the channel to cast their hooked and baited nets for their livelihood. They haul in dozens of red snapper, sea trout, mackerel, bonito, and the occasional yellowtail and other exotic Southern California catches, bring them back to their sandy workplace on the beach next to the Newport Pier and make their living as modern-day fishmongers, providing discerning seafood lovers with the freshest of the fresh.
There are about a dozen dory fishermen who inhabit the tiny, ramshackle, beachfront stalls immediately west of the pier, and D'Amato says that at least a few of them set out into the ocean nearly every day of the year, sputtering off into the early morning darkness to bring back their catches to sell mostly to the cognoscenti who crave only the fish that have been landed that morning.
Many of the insiders, said D'Amato, are Chinese, who not only prize fish as entrees, but "mostly they like everything very fresh." Others, he said, are regular customers who wander by to say hello and pick up their evening meal. Occasionally, passers-by are pressed into service as a dory returns, and both the fishermen and the potential customers shove the little boat up the beach on portable rollers.
The dorymen's operation is perhaps one of the smallest fish markets any Orange County resident is likely to see, but it may be the fastest. If a customer wants a fish filleted, it is done in seconds, and wrapped in butcher paper and newspaper outer wrapping. The knife work may be slightly more primitive than at Benihana--only slightly--but it is no slower and no less effective.
The only element that keeps the market from opening every day is the weather, D'Amato said. Because the dories are small boats, high winds or waves or heavy rain keep them on shore.
The best days, D'Amato said, are in the summer, when catches will occasionally yield such delicacies as yellowtail, bonito "and swordfish once in a while."
Most of the dorymen's sales are to individual customers but, said D'Amato, they make regular sales to local restaurants that prize the quality of the catch.
D'Amato, 41, who lives in Costa Mesa, said he sells an average of 200 pounds of fish a day.
"I've been doing it all my life, really," he said. "I started when I lived in Italy, and I've been here since '73. It's a lot of work. But you've got to have it in your blood. I was born to this."
THE DORYMEN'S FISH MARKET AT A GLANCE Where: Next to the Newport Pier, west side. Catch: Red snapper, sea trout, mackerel, bonito. Occasional exotics such as yellowtail and swordfish. Prices: Variable, but generally (per pound): Sea trout, $1.50; red snapper, $2; mackerel, $1; bonito, $2.50-$3. Hours: First boats arrive on shore around 8 a.m. daily (weather permitting). Best time for shopping: 10 a.m. Parking: Nearest spaces are metered, quarters only.