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Photograph by Noelle Luchino
Everything But the Pearl : Blue point, small Pacific and barbecued oysters are on tap at Phil's in Moss Landing.

Good Fishing at Phil's

For over 25 years, Phil and Judy DiGirolamo have given new meaning to the phrase 'catch of the day.'

By Christina Waters

Still funky after all these years, Phil's Fish Market stands at the center of Monterey Bay scenic attractions. From all over they come to ogle the huge cods, snappers, salmons and sand dabs, laid out like marine royalty on their icy thrones. Fresh oysters of every description, poised in ice caves, await half-shell consumption. Visitors come to swill incomparable cioppino, crispy calamari and plump house-smoked sardines. Locals load up on frozen chowders and sauces, all created from recipes originating in the Sicilian kitchen of Phil's grandmother.

The long enclosed porch, a rustic reminder of Phil's open-armed approach to hospitality, still hosts the curious, the ravenous and the merely hungry. But there's a new upscale interior--with banquettes lining a Naples yellow wall, artwork, tasteful lighting and even new in-house restrooms. It all caters to the creature comforts of diners who come from literally everywhere. They're all here for one reason: Phil's sparkling, Mediterranean-inflected seafood.

Plates piled high with pastas, chowders, crab Louies and blackened yellowtail glide by our table as we wait for our order. Keith and I have been lunching at Phil's almost since the beginning. Like many regulars, we've watched the place grow from a warehouse wrapped around a table of iced fish, Phil sautéeing scampi on a single-burner stove, to the celebrated seafood destination that it is today. Holding down one end of this impossibly scenic fishing community, Phil's is all about big portions, robust flavors and getting full on some of the best fish you'll ever taste.

Which is why we drove south last week on Highway 1 to the exact point where the towers of the old power disappear into the fog, and turned right toward the edge of the lagoon. Phil's spiffy new wine and beer bar immediately attracted Keith's attention. Here he was offered a taste of an E&A ale on tap while he placed his order for carry-out cioppino ($59.95 for dinner for four). So extensive is Phil's menu that deciding on lunch can take longer than the actual drive to Moss Landing. But we managed, and pretty soon platters arrived bearing mega-meals. Gone are the casual, fish-house baskets with waxed paper liners--our lunch entrees arrived on smart rectangular ceramic platters--but who's complaining?

"There's really no place like this," Keith observed, taking the first stab at his moist, flaky fillet of blackened wild Alaskan halibut ($23.95). He's right. Live lobsters in huge tanks line the far chamber where oysters are shucked and salmon cleaned. My favorite display hustles tempting varieties of house-smoked salmon, tuna and sardines, right next to three-foot-long slabs of ahi, albacore and yellowtail ready to be sliced into whatever you're having for dinner at home.

Part restaurant, part fish market, Phil's exudes the big-hearted gusto of the fishing community itself. Certainly that gusto was obvious in my lunch special of shrimp scampi with rigatoni ($25.95). Accompanied by a substantial green salad--cruets of oil and vinegar are always parked on the table--my expanse of perfectly cooked pasta was laced with lavish quantities of garlic (thank you, Phil's nonna!), fresh tomatoes, mushrooms and scallions. Three enormous prawns in their shells had been butterflied for easier maneuvering. They shared the bed of pasta with a succulent soft-shell crab, all gooey in the garlicky scampi sauce, and two portions of spiny crab, cracked into easy-access portions. The whole opulent presentation was a delicious riot of shellfish's greatest hits, and I ate without stopping to breathe.

When I came up for air 15 minutes later, I noticed that almost all of the polenta and most of the halibut on Keith's plate had disappeared. My fork managed to spear a taste of each--luscious, let it be noted--before his plate was rendered magically spotless. We stopped at the counter on the way out for a carry-out bucket of Keith's cioppino, plus a few filets of wild King salmon, and headed out into the foggy afternoon. We drove back to Santa Cruz powered by garlic fumes and another utterly memorable meal at Phil's.

Phil's Fish Market

Address: 7600 Sandholdt Road, Moss Landing

Phone: 831.633.2152

Hours: Daily, 10am-8pm (9pm Fri-Sat)

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