GLOUCESTER HARBOR — It's a little before 7 a.m., and the edge of the sea is shrouded in thick fog. The air is cool and salty, following one of the hottest weeks of the year, and the water calm and glassy. Fishing boats lining the docks are barely visible; and then, slowly, a small white vessel pushes through the fog. The name Tonno (Italian for tuna) is scrawled on the side. Aboard is, arguably, a Big Tuna in his own right: chef Anthony Caturano, 39, owner of the busy North End restaurant Prezza. It's the height of striper season and he's been out fishing since 4 a.m., coming in only to pick up two passengers.
It's becoming almost routine for chefs to hunt in forests for moss and mushrooms, and diners are often delighted to find menus studded with items foraged, fished, or otherwise gathered by the kitchen crews. Caturano, a solidly built Italian-American, isn't the type to roam the woods looking for lichens. But three or four days a week in the summer, you can find him on his beloved sport fishing boat, zipping through the water, blasting country music and reeling in fish. The fruits of these endeavors could be on your plate at Prezza hours later.
Caturano has been an avid hunter for years, going out with pals during the fall and winter for all types of creatures, from deer to bigger game like moose and elk. Fishing, he says, was a natural outgrowth of his passion for hunting. His father has always had a boat, so he was familiar with boating. Once he got his own, he enlisted the help of savvy North Shore locals and, before long, he was spending a good deal of time on the water. "It's a little consuming," he says, "You kinda get a little addicted to it."
Although Caturano is not allowed to sell game he has hunted himself at the restaurant, the chef has commercial striped bass and cod licenses, which means he can put the fish on the menu. (Striper season ended earlier this month, though sport fishermen with a license can still reel it in.) He loves fishing for tuna and occasionally digging for clams and oystering, but doesn't have the proper clearance to sell those at the restaurant. A commercial striper license allows for 30 fish per outing, and while he doesn't always do well enough to supply the restaurant entirely with fish he's caught himself, he gets pretty close. The average 34-inch striper (the minimum size for commercial catches) can get Caturano a good eight to 10 servings, with some of the other parts chopped for seviche, and the bones going into stock. As for the sustainability of striper, Caturano quips that, depending on whom you ask, there's either only one left in the whole ocean or there's far too many. "I don't get too involved with [sustainability activism]," he says, "A lot of it's so political."
A bit farther out from Gloucester, by Plum Island Sound, it doesn't take long before Caturano lands a 32-inch striper, a little small for commercial but within the limit for recreational catches. An old salt on a boat nearby, whom Caturano identifies as Adam Smith (a longtime commercial fisherman, now retired), gives him tips on where the fish are biting. They're on a first-name basis. "They're all stacked up over here, Anthony!" Smith says, and Caturano directs his boat accordingly. Caturano has become more and more appreciative of the grueling work of Gloucester commercial fishermen. "Commercial fishing is a hard thing to do," he says, "and the guys that make a living at it — it's not easy, [to] come out here and do that every day. You gotta be willing to work really hard." But out on the water, the respect is mutual. "I had the best meal I've ever had in my life in this man's restaurant," Smith says as he takes some live mackerel bait from Caturano, "and I've been all over the world."
Caturano, an Olives alum, was raised in Revere and Danvers, the son of a Northern European-American mother and second-generation Italian father. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Caturano went to school first for accounting. "I couldn't imagine . . .'' he says, the thought trailing off. "My dad's an accountant," hence the son's interest. After working at Olives and restaurants in Miami and Los Angeles, Caturano opened his own place in a quiet part of the North End on Fleet Street. That was about 14 years ago. Naming the place was easy: Prezza is his paternal grandmother's village in the central Italian region of Abruzzo, a place Caturano has visited a number of times.
Abruzzo comprises a wide stretch of coastline on Italy's lesser-known east coast on the Adriatic Sea. Because Prezza the village is inland, fish is not necessarily a focus of Prezza, the restaurant, but given the abundance of wonderful local seafood, Caturano makes sure to have several fish dishes on his menu. Back on the good ship Tonno, the chef is maneuvering out of the fog around Gloucester Harbor as if he's been doing this his whole life.
After a few hours out on the water, Caturano expertly cleans and fillets the fish dockside before heading over to his parents' place in Gloucester to cook lunch. In a fully equipped outdoor kitchen overlooking the harbor, he grills a few pieces of the day's catch and throws together a succotash of grilled corn, onions, and chorizo made from sea duck he hunted last fall. A few sprinkles of oregano (grown with seeds from his grandmother in Italy) and the fish is served.
So you have to wonder how a chef can be out fishing at 4 a.m. and later head into a grueling night in the kitchen. "A 15-minute catnap," Caturano says, "and I'll be set."