Every year for Christmas Eve, I make my mom’s Rhode Island clam chowder and a big crab Louie with fresh, sweet Dungeness crab. This year, however, I served the chowder alongside a Caesar salad, because crab season was delayed. Even now that crab is here it can be hard to find. At one store I visited there was a hand-drawn sign on the seafood case reading, “It’s out of our claws! No Dungeness crab!”
Without a doubt, the best place to get Dungeness crab is Alioto-Lazio Fish Company (440 Jefferson Street at Hyde, 888-673-5868, crabonline.com), one of the last family-operated fishing companies in San Francisco. You simply can’t beat crab fresh off the boats. Sisters Annette Traverso and Angela Cincotta are the third generation operating the Alioto-Lazio Fish Company, a woman-owned business that has been located on Fisherman’s Wharf for more than 70 years.
The fishing fleet travels 25 miles or more past the Golden Gate Bridge. Only male crabs measuring 6¼ inches from point to point can legally be harvested, with average weights between 1½ and 2 pounds. The fishermen travel back and forth into the harbor — it takes hours to reach the right spot, hours of work stringing the pots, and hours to return. Alioto-Lazio sells their crabs live, whole cooked, or cleaned and cracked. They also ship their crustaceans overnight. If you haven’t had crab from the first ladies of the wharf, you’re missing one of San Francisco’s greatest gastronomic gifts, as well as part of its rich fishing history (that is sadly disappearing).
With the pandemic, traditional crab feeds are off the table, but Alioto-Lazio is offering a virtual crab feed package this year — they cook, clean and crack the crabs then add sourdough bread, cocktail sauce, and crab cookies. You can pick it up at your school, church, or event site, then get on Zoom with everyone and chow down.
While straight out of the shell is my favorite way to eat Dungeness crab, it’s also wonderful in everything from salads to pastas. One of my all-time favorite Dungeness dishes was the crab angel hair lasagna at the Crab House on Pier 39 (temporarily closed). When it disappeared from the menu, I created my own version to satisfy my craving, which I’ve shared below. The second recipe is a classic crab Louie based on my favorite one at the Wharf’s oldest sit-down restaurant, Fishermen’s Grotto No. 9 (Pier 45 at Taylor, 415-673-7025, thegrottosf.com). The origin of the Louie is one of great debate, but Helen Brown said in her West Coast Cookbook, “it was served at Solari’s in San Francisco in 1914.”
Crab Angel Hair Lasagna
1 cooked Dungeness crab, cracked and cleaned (about 2 cups of crab) with
reserved “crab butter” from top shell
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 tablespoons flour
2 cups whole milk
¼ teaspoon Kosher sea salt
¼ teaspoon or so white pepper (use black if you don’t have it)
1 pound angel hair pasta, cooked very al
¼ cup fresh Italian parsley, stems
removed and leaves roughly chopped
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggia-
1 tablespoon cold butter cut in chunks
*Crab butter is the fatty mustard-yellow tomalley, or roe, in the top shell. It’s the foie gras of the crab with sweet, briny and mineral overtones.
Crack and clean crab and remove meat from shells (it’s not hard to do, but if you’re squeamish most markets will crack and clean for you). Set aside two cups of meat and reserve the crab butter in a separate small prep bowl for the sauce.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees and set a large pot with 4-6 quarts water over medium-high heat.
Make the béchamel sauce: In a medium saucepan, melt 4 tablespoons unsalted butter. Whisk in 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour until well combined and the “floury” taste is cooked out, about 7–8 minutes. Increase heat to medium-high and slowly whisk in milk. Bring to a gentle simmer, then reduce heat to medium-low, stirring constantly until sauce is thickened and smooth, about 15 minutes. Mix in the crab butter (if using) and salt, turn off heat, and set aside.
Add 1 tablespoon salt to boiling water and once it returns to a full rolling boil, add angel hair and cook for half the time recommended on the package so it remains very al dente. Drain and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking.
Butter a 9×13 baking dish on bottom and sides. Rub a little olive oil on the bottom, then add a layer of pasta. Spread a thin layer of sauce and add some crab. Sprinkle with parsley and grated cheese. Repeat layers, ending with a layer of angel hair. Dot the top with pieces of butter, sprinkle on a little coarse sea salt, and more cheese.
Bake in the middle of the oven about 20–30 minutes, or until top is brown and bubbly. Allow to set about 10 minutes before cutting into individual squares for serving. Serve with extra cheese for passing at the table.
Classic Crab Louie
2 cups Best Foods mayonnaise
¼ cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons sweet pickle relish
Dash of hot sauce
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons lemon juice, freshly squeezed
One head iceberg lettuce
Fresh meat of two Dungeness crabs
Ripe tomatoes (if in season), cut into wedges
1 small can whole black olives
Canned beets, shredded or sliced
2 pastured eggs, hard-cooked and cut
Avocado slices (optional)
Whisk dressing ingredients in a bowl and refrigerate until ready to serve.
Tear apart the head of lettuce, wash and thoroughly dry the leaves. Refrigerate until lettuce is crisp cold. Make a bed of lettuce on a large serving platter. Top with a mound of crab. Place tomato wedges, olives, beets, hard-cooked eggs, and, if using, pepperoncini and avocado slices, around the platter. Serve with dressing and lemon wedges on the side.
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