This post is dedicated to my brothers. I love you guys.
Founded in 1935, Fisherman’s Grotto #9 is located in North Beach, San Francisco, just down the street from Ripley’s Believe It or Not and the Wax Museum. Seagulls call from overhead, fish mongers yell out their wares, and crowds of tourists chatter excitedly as they munch on fresh crab cakes, lobster rolls, and oysters on the half shell. There is a rich Italian history here. Look around and see Aliotos, Joe DiMaggio’s, and Fisherman’s Grotto #9, establishments that grew out of the immigration of Italian fisherman looking for the American Dream.
San Francisco in the 1930’s
It was a pretty raucous time in the city. The Golden Gate Bridge was finished in 1937 and in 1939 San Fransisco hosted the World’s Fair. Even the fish flocked to the Wharf making for some of the best fishing – a huge attraction to the fisherman traveling west from Sicily and southern Italy. The Grotto holds a tender place in my heart because it was where my culinary education reached a whole new level.
My brothers and I, the dinosaurs, were raised during the era of the “family meal.” Nevertheless, I would consider our childhood culinary experiences to be rather limited. Mom cooked while Dad hid in the living room watching sports until dinner was ready. The typical American family. In order to feed a family of four, seven nights a week, my mother depended on a rotating menu. Her favorites were pigs in a blanket with cottage cheese and canned pineapple, canned creamed spinach with fish sticks, tuna-noodle casserole, and biscuits slathered in margarine. In prosperous times, she splurged and served New York steak with baked potato and sour cream. It wasn’t until adulthood that we discovered that vegetables grew from the ground and garlic powder came from this mysterious plant called – well – garlic.
In the Pre-Arugula era, salad meant iceberg lettuce. Period. My brothers and I innocently consumed tuna sandwiches with Miracle Whip salad dressing with bread so white, you needed sunglasses. We had no choice but to be compliant, but as we grew older, we knew there had to be more.
What is Shrimp Louie?
Sometimes, in this sea of routine Americana, the culinary gods would look down on upon us, and on a hot summer night when it was too hot to cook, Mom would announce we were having Shrimp Louie for dinner. Hallelujah! This was always met with shouts of joy. In our house, this was really living. It was a gourmet moment, almost as special as going out for pizza or making Jiffy-pop popcorn while eating on TV trays.
I believe Mom pilfered this recipe from Fisherman’s Grotto #9. It’s a yummy salad made with shrimp, iceberg lettuce, eggs, tomatoes, avocado with Louie dressing. My guess is the recipe is a rendition of Sicilian seafood salad, adapted for the American palate.
It gets better. When my Italian relatives came to visit, only San Francisco would be good enough. We treated them to Fisherman’s Grotto #9. My grandfather gave the little fisherman on the neon sign the name Captain Nemo. Oh joy, we were going to Captain Nemo’s for dinner! We would dress for a night in the big city – me in my seersucker dress and black patent leather shoes – my brother in his faux man’s suit with skinny tie. Our little bodies would quiver with excitement. The meal always began with a Shirley Temple for me and a Roy Rogers for my brother. Served with an olive on a swizzle stick, we felt like grownups sipping our cocktails before dinner.
Is it possible to recreate a family memory?
It’s 40 years later and I am venturing back to the Big City. Last night, Scott and I dressed up and drove to the city for dinner at Fisherman’s Grotto #9. It is always risky to visit childhood places. Things seem much smaller, buildings are replaced by strip malls. It can be traumatic. I was willing to take the risk.
Once we climbed the carpeted stairs and entered the dining room, all of the noise and carnival atmosphere from the street was gone. The hostess led us though the long narrow dining room that was flanked on two sides with windows that looked out on Fisherman’s Wharf. There was Alioto’s, Joe DiMaggio’s, there were the fishing boats lined up like army men, and there in the distance was the Golden Gate Bridge freshly built when The Grotto was established. In the foreground was a little chapel where the fishermen would pray for a safe journey at sea and an abundant catch.
Once we were settled in our seats, we were greeted by the restaurant manager who chatted us up while taking our drink order. We started with a Limoncello Spritz and a basket of warm dinner rolls. It had been decades and the rolls tasted exactly the same as I remember. So far, so good. I ordered the Shrimp Louie because it was absolutely required. They must use the finest quality ingredients because it melted in my mouth. It takes some skill to make a salad taste so good. I can’t say that eating that Shrimp Louie transported me back in time, but throughout the meal I felt that warm glow of distant happy memories. I am grateful to our parents and grandparents for taking us along and not leaving us with a sitter. These trips to the Big City infused us with an appreciation for class, fine dining and all the theater that goes along with it.
New memories in the making
Scott, the love of my life and culinary-partner-in-crime, had Fisherman’s platter, which was a huge plate of fried everything – calamari, popcorn shrimp, battered cod, and a crab cake that was divine. When we finished our meal and I placed my linen napkin alongside my empty plate, I flashed on my dad and grandfather, always the perfect gentlemen. I secretly hoped that Scott would help me with my chair. Right on cue, just as natural as can be, Scott stepped behind me and pulled my chair as I stood up to put on my coat. Some things are worth remembering.
I hope you enjoy this version of Shrimp Louie as much as I did and re-create some new memories of your own.
Shrimp Louie is easy to make and is a perfect summer meal.
Shrimp Louie from Fisherman's Grotto #9
A fresh, light, Italian-inspired salad perfect for a late summer dinner.
- 1 head iceberg lettuce or your choice of salad greens
- 1 lb cocktail shrimp
- 4 hard-boiled eggs, sliced
- 1 large carrot, grated
- 40 cherry tomatoes, about one pint, cut in half, marinated in tampenade
- 3 heaping Tablespoons tampenade
- 1 large avocado, sliced
- 4 wedges of lemon Louie Sauce (you can use your favorite Thousand Island dressing as an easy substitute.)
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 1/4 cup ketchup
- 1/4 cup minced scallion
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
- 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
- 1 teaspoon horseradish
- 1/4 teaspoon chili powder
- a pinch of cayenne
- salt and pepper to taste
- To make Louie sauce: Whisk all ingredients together in a medium bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate until ready to use.
- In a medium bowl, toss together tomatoes and tampenade. Set aside. For best results, marinate for one hour or overnight.
- Divide iceberg lettuce or salad greens evenly between four large salad bowls to make four individual servings.
- Arrange tomatoes, carrots, avocado slices, and egg slices around the edges of the bowl and spoon a generous amount of shrimp in the middle.
- Serve with Louie sauce on the side and a few lemon wedges.
- Goes well with a nice loaf of fresh bread and butter.