On the Road

Phil’s Fish Story (and the Creation of Monterey Bay Cioppino)

A childhood by the bay led to a life of chipping in.

Published Apr. 12, 2018.

If it weren't for the line of people snaking through the parking lot to the front door of Phil’s Fish Market & Eatery in Moss Landing, California, you could easily drive right by it. The tin-sided combination of seafood market and restaurant blends into its industrial port surroundings, camouflaged by stacks of wooden pallets, rusted shipping containers, and dry-docked boats. The building was once a squid processing plant, one of many now-defunct fish processing facilities in the area (John Steinbeck’s famous novel Cannery Row was set in Monterey, just a short drive down the coast from Phil’s).

Where We Went

Map of Monterey Bay


Some of California's most coveted Chardonnay grapes come from Monterey. (The area's lush climate makes it perfect for producing wine.)

Crowds from a rodeo and a motorcycle rally taking place in nearby Salinas mix with local sightseers fresh from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. DiGirolamo expected to feed 3,500 customers on the day that I arrived. The place is loud, owing in part to the polished concrete floor, intended for high traffic and easy cleanup. “It’s not for everybody,” DiGirolamo explains. “I play to families.”

DiGirolamo is a stout man with a salt-and-pepper beard and warm eyes. He grew up along this stretch of coast, one of 13 kids who pitched in at the family seafood restaurant. “We wanted to be managers, but my uncles had those jobs.” Instead, DiGirolamo stuck to the kitchen, where he learned his grandmother’s cooking secrets, measuring her handfuls of ingredients so he could re-create the recipes.

Left: Saucepans of Phil's cioppino, each one made to order. Right: The line of hungry (and patient) customers.

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The most popular item on the menu is cioppino, which DiGirolamo claims gets its name from everyone “chipping in” to the pot depending on what came in from the sea that day. His version contains an astonishing amount of seafood—scallops, prawns, calamari, mussels, fish, clams, and a cluster of Dungeness crab legs poking out of the top. Servers deliver gadgets for cracking shells and prying meat along with cheap plastic bibs that, while not stylish, do keep your clothes safe from stains.

Some years back, DiGirolamo began giving cioppino cooking demonstrations. He recalls, “One day, a guy comes in, looks at the cioppino in the electric wok, and says, ‘I want that.’ He gave me a $100 bill, I gave him the cioppino and the wok. . . and then I went out and bought five more woks.”

If You Go

Restaurant: Phil's Fish Market & Eatery

Address: 7600 Sandholdt Rd., Moss Landing, California

What we ate (and loved): Cioppino, grilled artichokes, fried artichokes, New England clam chowder, Manhattan clam chowder, artichoke cupcakes

Insider Tip: Get there early! On a busy Saturday, the line for a table can stretch out the door and most of the way to the street. Once you’re in, get an order of cioppino for the table: this San Francisco fisherman’s stew is made to order and served in a huge family-style presentation. You’re going to have to get wrists-deep into this dish to pry mussels from their shells and crack into crab claws—tie your bib on tight and embrace it.


Monterey Bay Cioppino

This stew is famous in San Francisco. But just down the coast, we found a version we like even better.
View the Recipe

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