Jesse Annunziato has fond memories of his father’s Main Street seafood store, where he would ride his bike as a kid, put in some work behind the counter and listen to his dad banter and rattle off recipes to his many customers.
“When I was a little kid there was never a lull in a day. It was known as the place to go on Long Island for fish,” Annunziato said. “People came here from Manhattan just to get fish because they knew ‘Codfish Tom’ was the guy.”
The elder Annunziato worked the counter while his wife worked the kitchen. After their divorce in 1993 Tom closed the kitchen, and 10 years later sold the store he had run since 1981.
It wasn’t six months before longtime regulars were going elsewhere for their fish, Annunziato said. Over the next eight years the shop changed hands five times, never regaining the reputation it once enjoyed.
“The service sucked, they had no variety, the fish was old,” said Annunziato. “I bought the place back because the people in this town needed it. There’s no good-quality fish markets in this town, and it’s something that this town does. They eat fish. And they shouldn’t have to go to Northport to do that.”
The 23-year-old diesel mechanic left the more lucrative pay of that line of work to be up at 2 a.m. each day heading to Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx. He is seeking to build his reputation on his own name, rechristening the place Jesse James Seafood. He never takes a day off, and often has his wife, Lorie, working alongside him as his own parents did for years.
Annunziato’s business plan is simple: recreate the environment he witnessed as a child. He’s quick to smile, and his voice fills the narrow store when he’s chatting up customers, reciting recipes learned from his father. Paintings of trawlers and maritime scenes by a local artist who knew his father fill the wall behind the counter. The kitchen is open again, offering fried and broiled dinners.
But it’s the care that Annunziato takes in everything he does that he is banking on to make the store a success. The smell of fish is noticeably absent inside, which he attributes to a strict cleaning regimen and his products’ freshness. He pulls bones, one by one, from a fillet of salmon, extolling the importance of removing them all should the piece end up on a youngster’s plate.
So far, the reaction has been one of relief among former customers, many of whom remember Codfish Tom’s, Annunziato said. Open for less than four months, he said he is currently breaking even but is seeing a steady increase in business, as well as signs of the kind of customer relationships which engender true loyalty. He addresses return customers by name, talking fish with one older gentleman who, he explains afterword, is an avid fisherman who comes in three times per week since his first visit.
Annunziato takes pride in his duties and enjoys using the knowledge imparted to him throughout his life, but it’s something he said he wouldn’t do anywhere else.
“There was no other fish markets I would work for because I didn’t believe in what they believed in,” he said. “They believed in screwing the customer any way they possibly could. I couldn’t work for somebody that did that. It’s rotten.”