Pulling into the waterside parking lot of Joe Patti’s Seafood in downtown Pensacola, I sit for a few minutes to watch the sea gulls wheel around in the late afternoon sunshine, their spirals following the wake of a shrimp boat slowly making its way to another night’s work. Huge brown pelicans hop around on the wooden dock beside a line of moored fishing boats.
Not everything in Joe Patti’s was caught locally, but most of it was, or in the nearby bayous of Louisiana. Sniffing the briny bay air, wind blowing hair into my eyes, I enter the cathedral of crustacea, the font of fish, and take a number.
Some folks come to Joe Patti’s for the people-watching. Business folk in tailored suits with cell phones surgically attached to their ears stand shoulder to shoulder with entire families including grannies and babies, peering closely at the rows of whole flounder, mullet, scamp, redfish, snapper, grouper and more. Vats of different-sized shrimp, head on or headless, bay or gulf make the choice challenging. Or the Royal Reds, with their sweet, lobstery taste — more suited to dipping in hot lemon butter than a spicy red cocktail sauce. I see a big guy in a tropical shirt and Bermuda shorts hoisting a net bag full of live oysters. He is accompanied by a large, sun-burned red headed woman wearing bikini bottoms and a t-shirt emblazoned with “Where Were You When The Ship Hit The Span?” Her shirt is a reference to that memorable event a few years ago when a barge knocked a hole in the Pensacola Bay Bridge.
An elegantly dressed woman who appears to be in her 90s discusses the thickness of swordfish fillets with Joe Patti’s senior swordfish and tuna cutter, a Vietnamese gentleman of indeterminate age, with wise eyes and undeniable charm. Tourists carry out loaded Styrofoam containers. This is a place where food choices are made carefully, fish eyes checked for clarity and lively discussions held on everything from price to cooking methods.
I want everything, but satisfy myself on this trip with two beautiful red snapper fillets, two pounds of jumbo gulf shrimp (headless), a pint of West Indies crab salad and a half-pint container of plain, fresh-cooked lobster meat.
In another section of the building, the Patti family operates a wildly successful specialty bakery, deli, gelateria, gourmet provision and wine shop called Amangiani. Following my nose, I grab up one of the warm sourdough loaves just as it was slid into a long bag, straight from the oven. Some black Kalamata olives, a chunk of Port du Salut cheese, a bottle of Rabbit Ridge Chardonnay and I’m out the door, homeward bound with my day’s catch.
Here’s what I did with the two red snapper fillets, two pounds of jumbo Gulf shrimp, pint of West Indies crab salad, and 1/2 pint of fresh cooked lobster meat:
The first dinner:
West Indies Salad and Dirty Martinis
Red Snapper with Browned Butter and Capers
Roasted Yellow Fingerling Potatoes with Garlic and Rosemary
Sliced tomatoes with olive oil
(West Indies Salad is traditionally made with lump crab, vinegar, and onions. Joe Patti’s version was milder, with parsley and Old Bay seasoning added. I prefer the original, and doctored theirs with some chopped shallot and Japanese vinegar. The crab meat was well-picked and had a beautiful texture.)
Lunch the next day:
West Indies Salad and Lobster In Herbed Mayonaise
on a bed of Chopped Romaine with Grape Tomatoes
(Especially enjoyable sitting on the screened porch, where a wind in the pine treetops makes a lovely sighing sound.)
Dinner the second night:
Guf Coast Shrimp Puttanesca (from Pensacola Chef Jim Shirley’s Good Grits)
Rabbit Ridge Chardonnay
(This shrimp dish was luscious. I was concerned that the recipe instructions might be wrong. How could all that water turn into a great sauce? But it did. I have read about making a good stock from shrimp shells, but had never before done it. Now I’m a believer. The recipe called for spaghetti squash, but I used regular linguini instead, and also omitted the Romano cheese. There was plenty left over for a second meal, which I am looking forward to tomorrow night.