MONTEREY'S 'MR. FISHMAN'
Robert Torrise's business grows from one-man operation
By MARIE VASARI
Herald Staff Writer
Robert Torrise, owner of Robbie's Ocean Fresh Seafood on Wharf No. 2 in... (VERN FISHER/The Herald)
It's messy, it's smelly and it's co-o-o-o-o-ld.
And it's a job Robert Torrise couldn't love more.
Torrise, 45, is a modern-day fishmonger, a wholesale supplier to a bayside community that prides itself on its fine, finny choices.
But to the waiters and the cooks who know him as the guy who delivers the catch three days a week through the restaurant's back door, he's simply "Mr. Fishman."
That is perfect for a guy whose Sicilian roots are rich with the ocean, whose first job, at 12, was in a fish shop and who learned the wholesale seafood business before he finished high school.
Torrise went on to fish commercially for spot prawns and rock cod in Monterey, for herring in San Francisco, for salmon in Alaska.
Seafood, as a trade, is work that hails back to Monterey's heyday, when the clanging of the pulleys and the shouts of the fishermen sailed the breeze, when the biggest crop was that of the sea. And it's one that suits Torrise just fine.
Five years ago, trying to balance his experience in the seafood industry with fatherhood and family and freedom, he started Robbie's Ocean Fresh Seafood. Equipped with little more than a van, a cell phone and lot of hope, he worked out of his home.
These days, Torrise has a 750-square-foot shop on Monterey's Wharf No. 2, which houses a packing area and cooler, in addition to his home office. A small fleet of delivery vans helps deliver fish to such clients as The Sardine Factory, Inn at Spanish Bay, Blue Moon and Bernardus Lodge. Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital is a client, as is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which orders not only for its restaurant, Portola Cafe, but for many of its most prized inhabitants.
So what's on an otter's order? Turtle-safe, sustainable Sweet Georgia shrimp. The sharks get salmon. "They don't spare no expense for those little guys," he says.
Three days a week, he's up long before sunbreak to jostle his way among the restaurateurs, the brokers and the buyers on San Francisco's Pier 45. It's a side of San Francisco that Torrise knows from his youth but a facet few visitors ever experience.
"That's when you see San Francisco, the yelling and screaming, boats in and out," he said. "It's just a whole different view of the Bay Area."
It's a face to the place of which he never tires.
Surrounded by the sea and the seagulls and — eventually the sunrise — he inspects, rejects and bargains in a seafood bazaar, with the brokers that represent a global array of seafood. Swordfish, clams, mahi-mahi, mussels. Baramundi, hook-and-line-caught bluefish, tuna, caviar. Oysters, bronzini, durod, sepia and wild striped bass.
Fish from Alaska, from Bali, from Thailand, from Australia. From Monterey and Marin.
If a customer requests it, chances are Torrise can get it.
Then, while the rest of the region is yawning itself awake, he points his truck to Monterey's wharf, where he'll transfer individual orders — usually about two dozen — to refrigerated vans for delivery.
But that's no small or simple task: Truckloads generally run 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of fish, packed in ice-filled wax-coated boxes known as wetboxes. Inside, plastic separates the seafood from the ice, to avoid any chance of chlorine discoloring the fish or affecting its flavor.
Seafood swims through Torrise's past.
In his Sicilian family of 10 children, fish was often served growing up for everyday dinners and special occasions. Two brothers opened their first retail fish shop in San Francisco's Mission District while he was in junior high, then expanded to a small string of stores. When he moved to Monterey 18 years ago, he went to work for his in-laws at their business, Monterey Fish Co. These days, his wife, Fran, handles Ocean Fresh Seafood's books.
Chances are, seafood will run through Torrise's future as well.
"I'm having fun," he said. "I don't have to answer to anybody except my wife."
Torrise — a seafood wholesaler who admits he doesn't actually eat much fish because it leaves him hungry an hour later — gave himself a year to succeed. If he failed, he said, he figured all he'd have lost was the cost of a van.
Last week, Robbie's Ocean Fresh Seafood was named Purveyor of the Year by the American Culinary Federation's Monterey Bay chapter.
Colin Moody, executive chef at Asilomar Conference Center and current president of the chefs association, said Torrise has been instrumental as a board member for the organization and founded a successful golf tournament last year that raised $6,500.
"He's just one of those guys with a real 'I can take care of it' attitude, and that's just so fantastic for chefs to hear," said Moody. "He just does that over and over again."
Moody said he's impressed with Torrise's knowledge about fish, particularly about what's sustainable, what's organic and what's the next swelling trend.
For now, Torrise said he loves the camraderie on the job, the chance to coach his kids' teams, to see them grow up.
"If I'm not having fun," said Torrise, "then I'm going to stop."
Marie Vasari can be reached at 646-4478 or