Though we’ll likely moan about it later, there’s no denying that good eating is one of the best parts of the holiday season—especially if you’re a seafood lover. From standards like shrimp, mussels, lobster and calamari, to bronzino, caviar, Norwegian sole and other more exotic fare, the selection is never more enticing than it is in December, when spirits—and spending—are high.
The most visible and reliable seafood resource in the area is Samuels & Son Seafood Co. Its fish tale began in 1929, when Samuel D’Angelo’s grandfather, Guiseppe Ippolito, began pushing a cart loaded with the day’s catch through the streets of Philadelphia. The hours were grueling, but with the support of his wife and children, Ippolito prospered, upgrading to a horse and wagon, and then to a truck. By 1945, his eldest daughter was running a full-scale retail store at 13th and Dickinson streets.
Today, D’Angelo and his kids, Lauren, Sammy and Anthony, run the show. He came into the family’s occupation full time in 1974, after his grandfather retired and moved back to Sicily. With business booming, D’Angelo started his own company to focus on the wholesale side, calling on his father to head up the sales team.
Today, Samuels & Son is an industry leader, with some 250 employees working to supply more than 2,500 different seafood products to restaurants and other businesses in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. All told, they operate 50 delivery trucks daily, Monday-Saturday, while also handling overnight delivery nationwide. Their selection is second to none, ranging from 350 to 400 species of fish and shellfish.
Samuels & Son’s local market share is about two-thirds, and plenty of suburban restaurateurs owe at least a portion of their success to the company. Chef Carlo deMarco—the culinary muscle behind 333 Belrose in Radnor and Firecreek Restaurant + Bar in Downingtown—makes no bones about his allegiance, gushing about their “pristine products, fair pricing and professional salesmanship.”
High-profile chef/restaurateur Alison Barshak, whose reputation has been built on seafood, describes Samuels & Son as a tour de force in the industry. “When I was starting out, I learned about fish and seafood from the first sales guy at Samuels & Son. He was high energy and would do anything for a customer,” she says. “He’d really go above and beyond, which is why people like to do business with [them].”
The ever-growing list of local Samuels & Son customers also includes Ardmore Seafood, Sola, Teresa’s Next Door, Restaurant Alba, Creed’s, Merion Golf Club, Blackfish, Bywood Seafood, Philadelphia Lobster & Fish, and the ACME chain, among others. In Center City, big-name chefs Jose Garces, Marc Vetri, Eric Ripert, Georges Perrier, Jason Cichonski and Christian Albin all swear by Samuels’ unparalleled selection and “tell us what you want, and we’ll get it for you” mindset.
This year marks an 80-year run for Samuels & Son. And while the timing wasn’t deliberate, the company celebrated its anniversary with a gleaming, new state-of-the-art facility across the street from its admittedly antiquated, easy-to-miss, warehouse-style digs.
Spacious and flooded with natural light, the space measures 70,000 square feet. Most of it is devoted to production, and the rest to support staff. Cutting-edge technology includes an ozone-generation system that mixes O3 molecules with tap water to produce a safe, all-natural antibacterial agent. Yet, despite the modernized new environs, a congenial blue-collar work ethic prevails.
When it comes to storage—be it wet or dry, fresh or salt water—products are compartmentalized. Every piece of seafood must be traceable to the body of water in which it originated, and tracking begins at the receiving dock.
“Huge safety concerns have actually made the industry better,” says Joe Lasprogata, Samuels & Son’s director of purchasing and its in-house marine biologist. “The fishing industry is fairly antiquated. We want to bring it up to the same speed as other food industries.”
The freezer room at Samuels can hold 1.2 million pounds of fish. Over in the lobster room, with its tubs stacked like the champagne glasses in one of those fancy pyramid displays, seawater is pumped through pipes and filtered into tanks chilled to a steady 42 degrees. The water itself comes from a 15,000-gallon underground seawater reservoir. At 20,000 pounds, the system’s capacity is the largest in the region—ideal for holiday volume. Lobsters can be held for up to three months, which translates into steady pricing for consumers.
Some of Samuels & Son’s more exotic offerings include tiny Sawagani crabs, Madai snapper, shima aji (amberjack), Australian southern bluefin tuna, live sea urchins and scallops, frogs’ legs, and wild European turbo. Oysters are another Samuels specialty, with more than 100 varieties available from New Zealand, Europe, and the East and West coasts of the United States.
“It used to be we just gave the chefs the whole fish, and they’d break it down themselves,” says Lasprogata. “Now, we’re getting requests for specialty cuts, and they all want something different. We give it to them—and that’s why we keep their business.”
Samuels’ diverse inventory also includes “frozen at sea” items and a full line of preservative- and additive-free prepared foods like chowder, crab cakes, seafood sausage, baccala, seafood or shrimp salad, and more.
Thanks to all the media hype touting the many health benefits of eating fish, it would seem that Samuels has a leg up on the beef industry. These days, the real competition actually comes from other seafood purveyors and environmentalists. Several years ago, Samuels made a visible dent in the sushi trade, cutting out one of its leading competitors, True World Foods.
“We started to give them some serious competition,” says Lasprogata. “This was when Asian fusion was exploding, and they were doing everything from fish to rice. So we started selling wasabi, nori paper and our own line of rice.”
Samuels now has its own line of more than 200 sushi items, from eel and fish to dry goods, vegetables and frozen products. Sister restaurants Azie, Azie on Main, Teikoku and Mikado Thai Pepper have taken full advantage of Samuels’ expanded offerings over the past few years—to the benefit of their customers.
In its efforts to address environmental concerns, Samuels & Son supports sustainable fishing practices. “We strive to educate our customers, and to show them how our company can expedite access to sustainable seafood,” says Lasprogata. “That, in turn, helps them feel assured that they’re offering sustainable seafood whenever possible.”
The company’s Sustained Seas program affords distributors, retailers and consumers access to sustainable sources, as it increases awareness.
“There are obvious reasons for promoting sustainable harvesting and aquaculture practices that go far beyond our goal of staying in business another 100 years,” Lasprogata says. “Support for sustainable fishing helps ensure that the oceans will be able to continue providing for future populations, and that the entire seafood industry will continue to grow, generating more jobs and more income on a global scale.”
Eco-friendly endeavors aside, what matters to most of us is sinking our teeth into fresh, safe, unusual and affordable seafood any time of year. On that count, Samuels & Son has you covered.
SAMUELS & SON SEAFOOD CO.
Location: 3407 S. Lawrence St., Philadelphia, (800) 580-5810, samuelsandsonseafood.com
Local customers of note: 333 Belrose, Radnor; Ardmore Seafood, Ardmore Farmers Market; Azie, Media; Azie on Main, Villanova; Blackfish, Conshohocken; Bywood Seafood, Rosemont; Firecreek Restaurant + Bar, Downingtown; Mikado Thai Pepper, Ardmore; Philadelphia Lobster & Fish, Wynnewood; Restaurant Alba, Malvern; Sola, Bryn Mawr; Teikoku, Newtown Square; Teresa’s Next Door, Wayne.