Ever see those beautiful long, nautilus type shells along the shore here in Rockaway? We all love them, and sometimes pick them up and decorate our homes with them. In some cases, those shells are known as whelks, and were once ignored by fisherman as they searched for shrimp, squid and octopus. You see the squid could be turned into calamari, which served fried with red sauce, is an Italian staple. And polpo, served cold or hot, is the octopus that is found on many Mediterranean menus. Ever wonder then, what the heck scungilli is? Well, those are the sea creatures that live in the whelk shells, which can be found up and down the eastern seaboard. Essentially, they are sea snails! I hope I haven’t ruined that for you.
Scungilli marinara over pasta is one of my favorite meals of all time. Somewhat chewy and rubbery, I find that with a little garlic and sauce, I can easily devour an entire plateful. Up until recently I never thought about them as snails, but that doesn’t bother me because I am a fan of escargot, too. Occasionally some Italian restaurants will not offer scungilli. I got my first taste of that (no pun intended) at Tiberios on Beach 116th Street several years ago when I was told that it was too expensive for them to get it anymore. I looked at the waitress like she was a sea monster! Too expensive, nobody eats scungilli, it can’t be.
All was fine for a while as I had no reports from any of my mermaid friends or relatives that scungilli was being harvested by fisherman who had limits imposed upon them for lobsters and oysters, and had instead turned to whelk to supplement their incomes. But that was exactly what was happening in the dark shadows of the sea.
When I am in Greenpoint I go to Frost Restaurant, which is naturally on Frost Street, and I always order the scungilli. I never even look at a menu, and they don’t even ask, they just bring it to the table. My father, my brother, everyone knows Lazer eats scungilli at Frost! But recently I was informed by Frost that they no longer serve it because it had become too expensive due to the scungilli shortage! Even my father remarked, “There is something fishy here!”
Apparently, the demand is not coming from Italians, who have long loved the sea creatures, but from the Asian markets who are buying up the prized catch and shipping it overseas. This is not the same as the tuna trade in the 1980’s, when tuna were being hunted and shipped out to Japan, making fisherman on the East Coast very rich, while depleting the North Atlantic of local tuna. No, this is a smaller niche market, but it is hitting home. Recently I ordered the calamari and scungilli from Elegante’s but was told they too had succumbed to the scungilli shortage and could no longer afford to offer the dish to diners. To say that I am distressed by this is understating the situation. I mean if this can happen with whelk, could it also happen with calamari, oysters, lobsters?? We need some regulation around sea snails, so that they all don’t just disappear. How sad would it be if we walked along the seashore and there were no shells, not just whelk, but of any kind.
So it is in this spirit that I am thinking of creating a new organization aimed at remedying this dire situation. Save the Scungilli will devote its resources to empowering mermaids and mermen to save the environment by saving the whelk! By doing this we will save scungilli for future generations!