When a recipe called for whole uncleaned squid, I knew that the ingredient would be difficult to find. However, I did not expect it to be impossible. After 4 grocery stores, 4 markets, 6 restaurants, multiple phone calls and exactly zero success, I began to think otherwise. Fortunately, a friend with ties to the food industry gave me a little tip as I was about to surrender: Pagano’s Seafood in Norwalk. Sure enough, they had plenty of whole squid for purchase. I started on my recipe within the hour.
It turns out that Pagano’s is greatly respected in the restaurant community. They provide fish to some of the area’s most popular dining destinations including The Homestead Inn, Quattro Pazi, Napa and Company, Barcelona, Match, The Spotted Horse, and Bartaco. They even serve restaurants and markets in Massachusetts and New York. When I asked Allen Pagano, a founder and owner, why Pagano’s was so sought after, he chuckled and responded simply, “Because we’re the best.”
Further prompting revealed that Pagano’s does offer exceptional seafood. Their history in the business gives them access to exclusive products. For example, Allen Pagano’s partners in Boston recently got in some beautiful halibut. “There were only three boxes of halibut and I got two,” Pagano explains. In addition, they maintain high standards. Pagano demands the best from those selecting the fish. “They know what I want, but they also know our temper,” he says with a smile.
Pagano’s has an assortment of seafood available for small-scale purchases as well. The front of the building holds a counter where individuals can buy fresh day boat fish to create a meal for personal consumption, and they are happy to source a hard to find product for you.
Although Allen Pagano talks tough, he is a joker at heart. The whole endeavor began as a family affair. In 1979, his cousin asked him to join him on a trip to Alaska and he accepted on a whim. Once there, they developed an affinity for salmon and began sending it back to Boston. They decided to return to the state in 1982.
The business was small at first. “We started out with nothing,” notes Pagano. The Connecticut headquarters maintained its connections in Boston, but they needed to garner more interest. “We began calling restaurants,” Pagano remembers. Word spread and popularity increased steadily. Pagano’s ultimately had to move from its original location on Scribner Street to its current home on Water Street to have more space.
Pagano’s also absorbed many dedicated workers during its development. Some are family members, but others came into the market by what seems like osmosis. “I accumulated them over the years,” says Pagano. When asked to elaborate, he replied, “Oh, I don’t know. Walking on the dock.” Whatever their exact origins, every worker has become part of the family. The majority of them have been there the full 20 years and all of them have developed incredible skills.
A typical day begins around 4am. While many of us were running off to early holiday sales and bemoaning lost sleep, the people at Pagano’s had already started their day. The morning begins as Pagano checks his messages. Restaurants call in their orders for that day’s menu. The load can be enormous; Saturdays often see over 100 messages. From there, tickets are generated and the workers set about cutting down fish to fill them. The fish comes from the Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx. It is selected each morning and brought to the Norwalk market, allowing for the “day boat” designation. Pagano says, “We fabricate everything every day.”
Behind the scenes, the market is an icy bustling microcosm that seems impervious to the outside world. There is no time. The day ends “when work is over.” Recreating the history of the market was difficult as years and dates themselves proved unimportant. “I don’t keep track of time,” admits Pagano. It’s also immune to popular culture. “Martha, with that channel 4 show or whatever, came here,” recalls Pagano. Follow-up showed that Martha Stewart had asked them to teach her how to pick out the best fish for an episode. Some businesses would boast and let everyone know about the public exposure. Not Pagano’s. To them, respect comes from providing the best product, maintaining high standards, and fulfilling the requests for clients- not fame.
So why is Pagano’s so sought after? Because they are, in fact, the best.
Pagano's Seafood 142 Water Street Norwalk, CT 06854 (203) 831-9670