If anyone knows the historic secrets of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, it’s my friend Vince Rafello. This coastside cook combines a briny Sicilian-Portuguese pedigree with a fishing heritage that dates back nearly three centuries.
“We’re seafaring folks,” he tells me. “I’m pretty sure we’ve all got saltwater running through our veins.”
On a cool, windy coastal afternoon, I sit by the fire with Vince and his wife Ruth as he shares fond memories of a dockside childhood. I’m fascinated by his stories of happy years spent helping out at the family’s fish market – one of the first on Fisherman’s Wharf.
Rafello’s Fish Market was founded in 1915 by Vince’s grandfather, a local fisherman who ran the business with the help of his wife and two sons.
“The wharf was a great place to grow up,” Vince tells me. “I used to go crab fishing with my dad. When I was a kid, the water in the bay was so clean we could keep live crabs in underwater wooden boxes beneath the wharf. Whenever we needed fresh crab, we’d just grab a few and cook them in front of the restaurant. It was a tiny place, without even a stove – just a few tables and a Bunsen burner.”
“As a ten year old, I’d make giant Dungeness crab cocktails and Louies. We’d take big handfuls of fresh crabmeat and mix them with a homemade Louie dressing that was so thick a fork would stand up in it.”
After her husband passed away, Vince’s grandmother and the rowdy Rafello boys continued to keep customers well fed with fresh seafood cocktails and steaming clam chowder, which Vince and his sister lugged down to the wharf in big pots from the Rafello family kitchen in North Beach.
That lively home kitchen was also the place where Vince’s dad cooked up fragrant kettles of his legendary crab cioppino for family and friends – along with a steady stream of appreciative local police, who didn’t mind checking their weapons at Nonna Rafello’s door. Those fabled Sunday dinners are now a delicious part of San Francisco history.
“My dad was a gourmet cook and didn’t know it. He could do anything with any kind of fish,” Vince recalls. “He used to make his own wine, too, down in Nonna’s basement. The family called it ‘Dago Red.’ I think the last time we made it was back in 1948, using grapes we’d picked in Saratoga. I remember smelling like a winery for about a week.”
Today, Vince serves his crab cioppino on the same scarred wooden table his dad and grandmother used – only now the table occupies a place of honor in his kitchen in the tiny coastal town of Montara, California (about 25 miles south of San Francisco). Another tribute to vintage seaside traditions: Vince’s paintings of Fisherman’s Wharf back in the good old days.
As an authentic wharf-raised cook, Vince tells me two signature secrets for great cioppino:
- Use the ingredients you love best. Vince says he never makes cioppino exactly the same way twice – it all depends on his mood and whatever fish he’s brought home from the docks or our local fishmongers. His only criterion: the seafood should be “so fresh that you can taste the ocean.”
- Share your homemade cioppino with people you love. The classic fisherman’s stew is a favorite on the Rafello family table whenever fresh crab is in season (which, in our area, is usually from November to late spring).
Fisherman’s Wharf Crab Cioppino
This recipe, Vince warns, is not for the faint of heart. Its secret ingredient is indeed fresh crab – so fresh, in fact, that the feisty crustaceans are cracked while still alive and placed directly into the simmering cioppino base. This classic method – the same one used at the original Rafello’s Fish Market – allows every drop of flavorful juice to permeate the broth.
If you’re squeamish about live crab cracking, it’s fine to substitute crab that’s been prepared by your local fishmonger. Simply add the cracked crab (along with a hearty portion of flavorful “crab fat”) during the last few minutes of cooking.
4 large live crabs
1 lb. large raw prawns
2 lbs. raw clams (preferably Manila)
1 lb. calamari rings
Optional: 2 lbs. firm fish filets, cut into chunks (use halibut, sea bass, salmon – or a combination)
2-3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 medium onions, chopped
1 cup thinly sliced celery
1 large green bell pepper finely chopped
4 cups stewed tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)
½ cup Italian parsley, chopped
½ cup tomato paste
1 cup clam juice
1-2 cups water
¼ cup olive oil
Pinch of crushed red pepper
Preparing the sauce:
In a large stockpot over medium-high heat, sauté garlic, onions, celery, green pepper and parsley in olive oil until tender.
Add stewed tomatoes, tomato paste, clam juice and crushed red pepper.
Bring to a low boil, then lower heat and simmer for at least an hour, adding water if needed to keep the volume of liquid the same.
Cracking the crabs:
Being careful to avoid finger injury (a perpetual hazard among professional crustacean crackers), take a firm hold of the live crabs and remove the bodies from the shell. Split bodies in half and crack legs. Reserve crab fat.
Making the cioppino:
Add cracked crab, crab fat, raw clams and fish (if using) to sauce. Simmer for about 15-20 minutes (taste a crab leg to check for doneness). Add calamari rings during the last five minutes. While the cioppino is simmering, bring a pot of water to a boil and season with a pinch of salt. Cook prawns for one minute, then add to cioppino during the last two or three minutes of cooking. Cioppino is done when all clams have opened.
Serving the cioppino:
Serve the cioppino like Vince’s dad always did: over freshly cooked rigatoni (to soak up the broth). Vince suggests accompanying the stew with a caesar salad, crusty sourdough bread and a bottle of ‘Dago Red’