“Your fish has totally saved our marriage,” the tall man said, standing inside the doorway of Gallery Red Hook, an art space on Van Brunt Street. He gave a smiling, sidelong glance at his wife, who bubbled over with laughter. “I’m not joking,” he continued. “She plans our weekends around it. We have the most wonderful meals at home now.”
The couple were picking up a package wrapped in white paper from a guy with a cooler: their weekly catch from Mermaid’s Garden, Brooklyn’s first community-supported fishery (CSF). It’s a slap-your-head simple idea: Apply the principles of community-supported agriculture (CSA) to fishing instead of a farm. Members purchase “shares” and, rather than produce, receive weekly deliveries of spectacularly fresh seafood.
This idea’s elegant execution is the all-consuming project of co-owners Mark Usewicz and Bianca Piccillo, a husband-and-wife team with a combined 35 years in the food world and a passion for fresh fish.
Bianca and Mark hail from Buffalo, New York, where the aquatic offerings generally begin with lake perch and end with lake trout, but they have both had extensive educations in seafood. Bianca’s training has been literally immersive: She studied marine biology at Harvard and is an accomplished diver whose findings have contributed to a number of papers about fish ecology. Mark comes to the subject not from the ocean but the kitchen: A chef by training, he’s worked with some of the giants of sustainable cooking, including Ana Sortun and Floyd Cardoz. In Brooklyn, he has worked the line at the Montauk Club, Lunetta and, most recently, Palo Santo, the pan-Latin restaurant in Park Slope with a rooftop farm and a commitment to serious sourcing.
The couple thought their aqua-ethos would make for a unique store offering exhaustively researched sustainable seafood—a Fleisher’s for fish. But while they trawled for the right space, they began Mermaid’s Garden as a culinary consultancy and wholesaler, helping connect responsible fishermen to restaurants and assist ecologically minded chefs with their menus.
The success of this initial venture gave them an idea: Why not make the same options available to the public? An exploratory survey in Nona Brooklyn gave them the final push: the answer to the question “Would you like a local CSF?” was a resounding “yes.” They launched last June with three pickup locations: Palo Santo, Added Value Farm/Gallery, and the Greene Hill Food Co-op.
Palo Santo, Mark’s former employer and current wholesale client, serves as command central: The restaurant’s licenses confer legal status on the CSF, and so it is here that Mark and Bianca receive their early-morning deliveries, and clean, fillet and wrap all of their fish. Palo Santo’s chef-owner Jacques Gautier is more than happy to have them. “Other fishmongers just don’t bother,” Gautier says of information and education. “Either they don’t know or they aren’t going to tell you. Mark and Bianca tell you where, how and who. It’s an incredible resource and entirely in keeping with Palo Santo’s philosophy.”
And the fish on the chopping block? Mermaid’s Garden offers half and full shares of fillets, plus optional add-ons including oysters, whole fish, domestic bottarga and other piscine delights. On occasion, Mark brings the fish in himself, straight from Montauk or Cape Cod. And it’s far, far fresher than wholesale seafood. “Sometimes the rigor mortis hasn’t even finished setting in,” Mark notes.
But while members know their fillets will be fantastically fresh, they don’t know if they will be Maine redfish, yellowtail flounder, wreckfish, grouper, or some other species altogether until a day or two before they pick it up. That’s because unlike a CSA, in which the farmer knows what he’s planted and what he hopes to harvest each week or month, fishermen can’t necessarily say what they’ll catch until they’ve caught it. Once Mark and Bianca know what’s on the hook (or in the net), they send out a “Fish of the Week”— generally a day or two in advance of pickup. “They roll the dice with us,” Bianca says of Mermaid’s Garden members, and her customers seem to like their odds.
That said, Bianca and Mark make special accommodations for members with dietary restrictions. A customer who announces her pregnancy is congratulated, then reassured that she’ll receive substitutions when swordfish, bluefish, tuna and other higher-mercury fish are on the CSF menu. “If you’re expecting, nursing, feeding toddlers, keeping kosher, what-have-you—we can give you appropriate alternatives,” Bianca says, before adding with a charming smile: “but we don’t do ‘I don’t like it.’”
While Mermaid’s Garden members don’t get to meet the fishermen themselves, learning about the fish (and the people who caught it) from Mark and Bianca is definitely the next best thing. At each pickup, they’re on hand to give details about the week’s catch and suggest recipe ideas (the simpler the better, for fish this fresh). Leaning forward to tell a curious customer the definition of a “modified otter trawl” (the catch method used for the yellowtail flounder on offer at Gallery Red Hook one week), Mark’s normally understated demeanor gives way to an infectious enthusiasm.
“It means the fisherman uses a tickler on the ocean floor,” he says. “That stirs up the groundfish before the net comes along,” he adds, and Bianca chimes in to finish the explanation. “It’s a more humane method because it limits the bycatch,” she says, referring to creatures that can be inadvertently caught in a ground net, “but there are no otters involved.”
Bianca’s ichthyological background also gives her the authority to convincingly explain why the CSF doesn’t limit itself to local waters. The support of ethical fisheries and excellent product transcends food miles for Mermaid’s Garden. Besides, as Mark puts it, “Fish don’t understand state boundaries.”
While fish may be heedless of their origins, Mermaid’s Garden is not. Mark and Bianca take pride in educating members not only about the pedigree of their fish, but that of its captors as well. If they are evangelical, it’s for good reason: Nearly every one of their fishermen seems to have a story that’s tailor-made for Hollywood: from the 14th-generation East Hampton bayman who works as a “pound-netter” out of Montauk, to the Woodburys, award-winning aquaculturists (and reformed academics) on Cape Cod who rake the sweetest clams.
“Been working with Mark and Bianca since they were involved in the Boston restaurant scene,” Pat Woodbury writes in an e-mail. “They have always been totally dedicated to sourcing local sustainable food. Of course they are a huge hit. We are fortunate that they have brought us along.”
New pickup sites from Bushwick to Cobble Hill include restaurants, an art gallery and, most recently, Sycamore, a combination flower shop/bar in Ditmas Park that a local describes as the “neighborhood clubhouse.” These community hubs make the weekly fish fetch into a block party: Members show up with bicycles, coolers, babies and dogs, trading stories of dinner party triumphs and culinary forays into the unknown. “I had never cooked squid before,” a member exclaimed with shy pride at the Sycamore pickup, “and it was delicious!”
At the rate Mermaid’s Garden is growing, the party is going to need a bigger block: In less than a year, the CSF has more than 250 members, many of whom are clamoring for more. “I have friends in Astoria just waiting for you,” a Red Hook customer tells Bianca, a note of pleading in her voice.
Despite what Mark calls “a lot of 5 a.m. mornings,” he and Bianca are happily anticipating more of the same in the seasons to come. They still think about putting down roots (or fins) in a shop, but when it comes to serendipitous and personal ways to connect Brooklynites to their seafood, it would be hard to improve on the Red Hook customer who did a double take at the yellowtail flounder he had come to claim.
“Hey, these fish are from Galilee, Rhode Island,” he exclaimed. “That’s where my dad grew up!” Fish may not respect state lines, but in the right hands they can still convey a feeling of home.
Photo credit: Valery Rizzo