Keeping Gloucester's Lobster Business Thriving: Mortillaro's Lobster

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By Heather Atwood / Photos by Adam Detour

Mortillaro Lobster, a $30-million-a-year business, stands unassumingly at the head of Gloucester harbor’s Harbor Cove, the inner most part of the harbor ringed with similarly plain buildings, all zoned for maritime industrial use: Cape Pond Ice, Ocean Crest Seafoods, Felicia Oil Company, Intershell, and the Fisherman’s Wharf fish auction. For all their lack of scenic charm these businesses, almost all of them born from the long branches of one Gloucester family—the  Linquatas—are the old school, working to transform Gloucester into a forward-thinking, relevant, 21st century city.

Mortillaro Lobster began 50 years ago and a few steps away, just across Commercial Street, amidst the sheet metal buildings and idling tractor-trailers of Gloucester’s Fort neighborhood. Past the walls of industry, Commercial Street turns right, into a neighborhood of wooden houses that cling to each other and this promontory of rock like a cluster of barnacles. Gloucester’s outer harbor laps at the base of this ultimate point of land, with views across to the grand homes of Eastern Point.

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For generations, the Fort was where new immigrant populations came when they first landed in Gloucester. It was here that they found work and shelter, working in the fishing industries just down the street, packing into the wooden homes at the end of the point. The Fort was a dead end of Gloucester that no one else wanted, but home to generations of the city’s residents, sardined into houses with cousins, aunts, and uncles. Crowded, noisy, and almost tree-less, with fish, sea, sky, and squawking seagulls, this neighborhood had its own cuisine, rooted in the Sicilian villages the most recent immigrants left behind.

In this neighborhood, in a small building his family called “The Boat Shop,” Michele Mortillaro worked as a woodworker servicing wooden boats in the harbor. When fiberglass replaced wood, Michele founded a new enterprise: he was the first in town to produce six-foot wooden crates in which bluefin tunas, which Gloucester fishermen were paying to dump because they couldn’t sell them, could finally be shipped long distances—to Japan, for instance. Michele and his sons, Vince and Gino, turned these crates into a lucrative business. After approximately 18 years, cardboard replaced the crates, and the Mortillaros recovered again, this time with a fish and lobster business.

The Boat Shop building is still there, but today it houses tanks that can hold 15,000 pounds of live lobsters. It’s called “The Tin Building” now, for its corrugated metal sides. Directly across Commercial Street is the large Mortillaro Lobster headquarters.

“I was running two companies when I was 18,” Vince Mortillaro, now 50, said, “The Boat Shop and Mortillaro Lobster.” With dark eyes, a full head of black hair and an equally healthy moustache, swarthy Mortillaro would look younger than his years if not for the full-on business pre-occupation that seems to define him.

Mortillaro explains the company’s rise as “a lot of hard work and a little luck,” but Mortillaro’s success follows the history of Gloucester’s waterfront. From wooden boats, to the overseas tuna business, to a fishing boom, to Byzantine government regulations, to a drastic collapse of the catch, Mortillaro’s has been there.

In 1997 the FDA required fish processors to adapt HAACP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) certification—a  system of safety in food production and pharmaceuticals to be monitored by NOAA, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, a branch of the Department of Commerce that regulates the fishing industry. The process and execution of HAACP certification for fish is complex and costly. This was the catalyst for Mortillaro’s to become exclusively a lobster wholesaler. (Mortillaro’s is HAACP-approved for selling live lobsters and lobster meat, but the hazards in lobster are so much lower than in fish that the process is simpler and less obstructive for the processor.)

“Specializing in lobster only simplified and streamlined the operation; fish was getting hard to get and harder to process, because of the regulations,” Mortillaro said. Mortillaro’s ships live lobsters to wholesale customers in France, Italy, Spain, Dubai, China (Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong), and Korea. In the United States, most customers are on the east coast, but there are some in California and Hawaii.

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The company sells its steamed lobster meat to a handful of Gloucester restaurants. “Steaming doesn’t drain the water out; the meat stays plump. Boiling drains the natural juice out, and the meat gets tough,” said Mortillaro. Mortillaro’s also has small retail division, open to the public, where anyone can purchase any size and amount of live lobsters available.

Keeping the lobster tanks healthy is a complicated science, but also the key to good lobsters. “We grow our own biology; it’s like the ocean,” Mortillaro said. “I’ve had people that work for me say the lobsters look better after they’ve been in the tank.”

This past fall, along with other marine industries in Gloucester Harbor, Mortillaro applied for a Kennedy-Saltonstall grant. According to NOAA, the objective of the grant program “is to address the needs of the fisheries and fishing communities in optimizing economic benefits within the context of rebuilding and maintaining sustainable fisheries and in dealing with the impacts of conservation and management measures.”

Mortillaro hopes to incorporate “Green Cement,” into the company’s marine building. The production of one ton of concrete cement results in one ton of carbon dioxide emissions, a major contributor to global warming. “Green Cement” is based on the science of coral beds, which actually employ carbon dioxide in the process of creating a hard substance. Green Cement is stronger, less expensive to produce, and PH neutral, so it does not contribute to the acidification of the oceans.

Also, with the proposed grant money, Mortillaro’s will host a “floating island” in the harbor waters in front of its building. Floating islands are large floats built of recycled materials, seeded with mollusks and bivalves, the ultimate dirty water filtration systems.

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As the world—and the Fort—evolve, so does Mortillaro’s. Last September, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Jack Johnson, and John Mellencamp sang their hearts out on behalf of small family farms at the 2013 Farm Aid Concert in Saratoga Springs, New York. For lunch, the stars relaxed backstage, digging into creamy, hot bowls of lobster mac and cheese, made with 30 pounds of sweet Gloucester lobster meat, compliments of Mortillaro’s Lobster.

Being included in Farm Aid’s lunch line is not easy. All Farm Aid’s meals—from snacks to backstage dining—are provided by Homegrown Concessions, the event’s catering company promising “that all food products served in concessions and catering are sustainably produced by family farmers, identified as local, or organic, or non-GMO, or humanely raised, or utilizing other ecological practices, along with a commitment to a fair price for producers.” Farm Aid organizers commit to source as locally as possible. They follow “least waste food service protocol.” They compost. They recycle. They donate leftover foods to local food banks. Sonya Dagovitz, who leads Homegrown Concessions, said she “jumped for joy” when she heard of the Mortillaros’ lobster donation. “I try to get as much of our food donated, but it’s hard to find fish that’s completely sustainable; you should have seen to look on people’s faces when they saw lobster mac and cheese!”

But, sssshhhhh. Vince Mortillaro, the lobster purist, never knew that the folks at Farm Aid “corrupted” his lobster with macaroni and cheese. “He would be horrified,” Patti Page told me. Here’s the recipe Vince approves.

Mortillaro Lobster Stuffing for Baked Stuffed Lobsters >>

Mortillaro Lobster 60 Commercial Street, Gloucester 978.281.0959 Retails hours: approximately 9am – 4pm

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Heather Atwood writes the Food for Thought column in the Gloucester Times and a blog by the same name. She lives in Rockport, and is currently working on a cookbook focusing on foods in coastal Massachusetts towns and villages. She can be reached at haatwood@gmail.com.