Fifth in a five-part series: Paused during the pandemic, restaurant reviews return with a celebration — five consecutive 5-star reviews, the highest possible ranking. It is a salute to the region’s culinary excellence; it also tells a story about what excellence means in 2022.
At what point during a meal at the Daily Catch in the North End do you recognize you are in the presence of greatness?
Maybe it’s when a jet of orange flames shoots briefly and dramatically to the ceiling just a few feet from where you sit, and you look over to realize there is just one person at the stove commanding all this heat, cooking for all these people. The stainless-steel galley, where tongs and skillets hang in heavy clusters like useful tinsel, isn’t big enough to accommodate anyone else. There’s just one waiter, just one dishwasher. The restaurant — 350 square feet, 20 seats — might serve more than 250 customers over the course of lunch and dinner on a busy day, according to Basil Freddura, whose father, Paul, opened the place in 1973. It was called Calamari Café back then, but not much else has changed at the Hanover Street space where consistency is a specialty, along with Sicilian-style seafood and pasta. That cook, operating with such precision, focus, and mastery, is likely to be Jimmy Huynh. He has been working for the Daily Catch for more than 40 years, since he arrived in Boston as a refugee from Vietnam. “The story goes, he jumped on a fishing boat, him and a bunch of other people, and just got out of there. He was picked up by the US Navy and brought to America,” Freddura says. The family business — which also includes restaurants on the waterfront and in Brookline, as well as a wholesale company, Calamari Fisheries — hired many Vietnamese refugees to process squid: “They eat a lot of the same seafood like the Sicilians.” Huynh, from a fishing family himself, stood out and worked his way up. (Another cook, Mikey D, a.k.a. Mike D’Orlando, has been at the restaurant for a mere decade and a half.)
Maybe it’s when you taste your food. Calamari, fried crisp and golden, served with a lemon wedge and a dish of marinara for dipping the tender rings and tentacles. Calamari scampi, with garlic, lemon, butter, and Romano cheese. Stuffed calamari, calamari salad, calamari with linguine, even calamari meatballs, a house invention, swimming in red sauce: glorious calamari, every which way. Paul Freddura and his wife, Maria, are calamari evangelists from way back. “In the ‘70s, nobody was eating calamari. It was called squid, and locally it was called bait,” says Basil, one of seven sons, all of whom have been involved in the business at some point over the years. The bycatch was cheap, and Paul saw a niche. He and Maria traveled up and down the East Coast marketing calamari, frying and selling it at festivals. “My father really did have a vision about squid and calamari,” Basil says. “He takes credit for it being on every restaurant menu in the country now.”
But not just calamari: Also on the Hanover Street menu, written on a chalkboard on the wall, are clams casino, mussels Siciliano, fritto misto, broiled haddock with crunchy breadcrumbs. From sweet, perfectly cooked scallops to clams to shrimp, all of the shellfish can be paired with linguine and either red (seafood-based tomato) or white (clam-based olive oil and garlic) sauce. Lobster fra diavolo is a skillet brimming with calamari, littlenecks, mussels, shrimp, and linguine in spicy red sauce, an entire lobster presiding over it all. (A few minutes before tucking in, out of the corner of your eye, you watch Huynh dispatch this very fellow with one well-placed stab.) The Daily Catch makes its own squid-ink linguine, and the wonderfully chewy, dark strands are served aglio olio, with garlic and olive oil, plus ground calamari and anchovy. You can also order black pasta Alfredo and add scallops or shrimp; you can pick puttanesca, made with mushrooms, peppers, onions, and anchovy butter. Monkfish marsala is rich, sweet with wine. Pan-seared swordfish comes swathed in tomato-basil sauce, with sundried tomatoes and mushrooms.
Maybe it’s when you watch a fellow diner rise from his table and proclaim, “That is the best swordfish I have ever eaten in my whole life!,” then squeeze his way between the crammed-in seats to shake the cook’s hand.
Maybe it’s when you see your fourth-grade son sitting next to your culinary school-trained friend, both just a little bit messy with red sauce, both wearing the same big smile. The Daily Catch is a restaurant for all comers. A decade ago, celebrated Chicago chef Grant Achatz, best known for his conceptual cuisine at Alinea, praised the place.
What makes the food so good? Its simplicity. Its consistency. Its freshness. All of the seafood is local, hand-picked at the fish pier: scallops from the scallop guy, lobsters from the lobster guy, squid cleaned and fish filleted at the wholesale facility. Everything is made to order, served in the pan in which it is prepared. The seafood is always cooked just right.
Maybe it’s when you realize that everything that makes the Daily Catch feel so charming and perfect is also the byproduct of necessity and efficiency: the skillets you eat from and the plastic cups you pour wine into; the no-reservations, cash-only business model; the line out front that tantalizes and rewards, making you wait but not for so long you can’t take it; the chockablock tables and ringside view. Depending on the day, the mood, the makeup, a meal here can be a party populated by interactive strangers, or a pastiche of side-by-side convivial experiences. Both, in my experience, are great.
Now in his 70s, Paul Freddura grew up in the North End, the son of immigrants who arrived from Sicily a century ago. Maria was raised in the business; her Italian father ran a big restaurant in the Albany area. Both are still involved, although their sons have taken over many of the day-to-day operations. “It’s been my parents’ whole life. They took it home every day,” Basil says. Cooks, servers, and dishwashers have worked for the Daily Catch so long they can practically do their jobs with their eyes closed. The Freddura boys are like sons to Huynh, whose four daughters, doctors and dentists, complain that he works too much. “He’s a machine,” Basil says. “His work ethic is unmatched. He loves what he does. Customers love him. He doesn’t want to put the pan down.” This American story brought to you by calamari.
Next year, the Hanover Street restaurant marks its 50th anniversary. No one here, it seems, wants to put the pan down. Thank goodness. More calamari, more black pasta, more lobster fra diavolo, more swordfish for us all.
THE DAILY CATCH
323 Hanover St., North End, Boston, 617-523-8567, www.thedailycatch.com
Wheelchair accessible with challenges (tight seating, accessible bathroom located at another business across the street). Outdoor dining is over for the season.
Prices Appetizers $11-$19. Entrees $27.50-$67.
Hours Sun-Thu 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Noise level Moderate
★★★★★ Extraordinary | ★★★★ Excellent | ★★★ Very good | ★★ Good | ★ Fair | (No stars) Poor
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.