Did you know…..

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… we give free oyster shucking lessons every Saturday between 1pm and 3pm.  Our lessons have been featured on Chronicle and Boston.com as a cheap creative date and was recently videotaped as part of Courtney Holland’s Next Stop:  T-Stop Fun series on Next Stop:  Haymarket.

No need to make reservations; just come any Saturday between 1pm and 3pm to learn a knew skill and eat a few oysters.  The lesson is free, you just pay for what you shuck.

We can accommodate groups of up to five people in our market.  We’re also available for private parties.  Feel like a guest at your own party and let us bring the raw bar and the shuckers or arrange for a private lesson at the location of your choice.  Contact us either by phone or at [email protected] to make arrangements for your party or work event.

What kind of oyster eater are you?  Click here to find out.

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Our Story & Shuck U (University that is…)

shuck-u-0091Nick Fincher, 24, takes a sip of his iced coffee and looks on, wide-eyed and amused, as his friend Chris Neal, 26, gets ready to learn how to shuck a Connecticut Blue Point oyster.

It’s a Saturday afternoon in the North End and shucking oysters was not part of their original plan. Yet here they are, gathered around a stainless steel work table behind the small sales counter at Mercato del Mare, an independently-owned fish market that opened its doors to the neighborhood in June.

The appeal of the shop’s quaint European storefront, blue Christmas lights and window display featuring a monkfish dressed as a pirate, drew Neal and Fincher in. The invitation to learn how to shuck oysters, extended to them by Keri Cassidy, the shop’s co-owner, made them stay.

Oyster shucking was not originally part of the plan for Cassidy and Liz Ventura, her friend and shop co-owner. Cassidy, a tall blond, and Ventura, a petite brunette, had long harbored the dream of quitting their jobs in software sales and human resources management to open their own food business, but the thought of opening a fish market did not occur to them until the summer of 2007.

Ventura and Cassidy were hanging out at the North End swimming pool when they heard that Giovanni Lavita was closing his Calore Fruit Market at 99 Salem Street. Lavita, who also owned the building, was looking for another business to rent the space to.

Ventura casually said to Cassidy, “If somebody was smart they would open a fish market.”

Cassidy responded, “Well why don’t you?”

The idea stayed with Ventura. She asked around the neighborhood and gathered more information about the space. A few days later she sent Cassidy an instant message and asked her if she wanted to open a fish market. Cassidy said yes.

Ventura readily admits that they knew little about the fish business. Their knowledge of fish was limited to what they had learned waiting tables in restaurants like Legal Seafoods and Terra Mia.

 “We went about it like two girls,” said Cassidy. “I think we had our logo colors picked out first.”

However, both loved working with food and poured all they had into quickly learning about the seafood industry. They researched local fish markets and found Sousa Seafood in South Boston, a distributor that helped guide them through the process of finding good suppliers. They worked as their own contractors on the space and gradually chipped away at making their dream a reality.

In June of 2008, a little less than a year after Ventura’s instant message, Mercato del Mare opened its doors and sold out its inventory by 2:00 p.m. Since then, Cassidy says, their business has held fairly steady, with the exception of a couple of slow months in the late summer and fall. As longtime North End residents, Cassidy and Ventura have already developed strong relationships with their fellow shop owners, who often encourage anyone looking for a good piece of fish in the neighborhood to “go see the girls.”

“The girls” attribute the company’s steady growth partly to the fact that it is the only fish market in the North End, but also in part to the economy, which has been forcing more people to stay in and cook. For a quarter of the price of dining out, customers can buy a nice piece of fish. The store also offers prepared meals like lobster ravioli, panko-crusted salmon and clam chowder.

Also helping business is their free oyster-shucking class, called Shuck U, which they hold in the small space behind the shop’s counter from 1:00-3:00 p.m. on Saturday afternoons. Cassidy and Ventura have recently begun advertising Shuck U on Boston.com and have already seen an increase in customers entering the shop. Although holding Shuck U means giving away inventory, they see it as a marketing cost. If the expense becomes an issue down the road, they say they may rethink the program or charge a small fee.

Some customers have come to the shop specifically for Shuck U. They come from other Boston neighborhoods, as well as Somerville, Cambridge, and Brookline. Some are North End residents like Neal and Fincher, who just happen to be passing by and walked in out of curiosity.

Participants are allowed to eat what they shuck, which makes it a hard deal for an oyster lover to pass up. By 2:30 p.m., eleven people have graduated Shuck U. Cassidy spies Neal and Fincher, and coaxes them behind the counter for a lesson.

Ventura, who grew up in New Bedford is the professor. She gives Neal a pair of plastic gloves and a shucking knife, which looks like a short, sturdy letter opener. She hands him an oyster, pointing out where the muscles are on the top and the bottom of the shell and tells him to place his shucking knife in the bottom tip of the oyster’s top shell. This point is where the oyster’s abductor muscle is located and is the central pressure point that must be loosened up in order to shuck properly.

“Go right in at the joint at 45 degrees and, as you’re pushing, twist and dig. Twist and dig,” says Ventura. “When you’re in securely, you want to pop it.”

Neal gives the oyster a couple twists, before a small pop is heard. He seems satisfied that he’s mastered the first, and most difficult, step of the shucking process.

“Great!” says Ventura. “Now you just want to take your knife and get underneath the top shell, pulling it away from you, so you separate the two. Cut the oyster from the muscles, flip the oyster for presentation, and you’re all set.”

Neal eagerly grabs another oyster to practice and persuades Fincher to put down his iced coffee and join him. Fincher obliges and both proceed to shuck and eat oysters until it is time for class to end.

Cassidy can see the satisfaction both Neal and Fincher have taken in succeeding at oyster shucking and asks them what they thought of the process.

“I’m very glad I came in, actually,” said Fincher. “We were just getting some coffee and saw the curb appeal of the place. We walked in and now we have a newly acquired skill.”

“Did you ever think you’d drink iced coffee with raw oysters?” Cassidy asks Fincher.

“I do it all the time,” she says. “That’s when I knew I was in the fish business.”

 

Tricia Hurley

Journalism Student

Boston University

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About Keri & Liz

Elizabeth Ventura (left) and Keri Cassidy (right)Do great childhood adventures really influence one’s choices made later on in life? Apparently yes, in the cases of Keri Cassidy and Liz Ventura of the North End’s Mercato del Mare. Although the two funny gals hail from two opposite coasts of the country, both share a reservoir of fond fish-oriented memories, may they be capturing or consuming. Perhaps it was these heart-cockle warming anecdotes that drove the two partners, and pals, to abandon their previous office-oriented careers and fill up a cozy neighborhood fish market with fresh sea-fares, and cockles of another sort.
Since the opening of the market last summer, the ladies of Mercato del Mare have been busy providing the North End with much-needed fresh seafood ingredients, and many ready-made, take-home options. At the end of day, the gal pals still enjoy unwinding with a glass of wine, a can of cold brew, and dream about the day when they can enjoy a duly rewarded vacation to Liguria or Greece. Though the work is hard, they wouldn’t have it any other way, not even if given the chance to run away and join the Seattle fish market. “No way!” says Liz. “I love our little fish market, and being in the North End.”
Enough said. Mercato del Mare is here to stay.

Essential Q&As with the ladies of Mercato del Mare:

Liz and Keri - Fish Chicks


1) A group of fish is referred to as a “school”, studies have shown that regular consumption of fish improves brain function. Coincidence?

LIZ VENTURA: I’ll let you know. I’ve been eating fish every day since June 5th, but I haven’t tried the New York Times crossword yet.
KERI CASSIDY: No coincidence. I’d be a card-carrying member of Mensa if I’d actually spent the money on the test.

2) Surf or turf?

LV: Both, of course!
KC: I get seasick, so I prefer to stay on land. ;)

3) Where in the world, do you think, exists the best seafood?

LV: In our little market, with Keri working her magic with our toaster oven!
KC: 99 Salem Street… or Japan.

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