Mentioning Lazio's around locals of a certain age is a bit like bringing up an old flame --there is sighing and smiling and remembrance of meals past. There are tales of tourists lined up in the summertime and locals streaming in on rainy evenings, shaking out their coats and warming up over bowls of chowder and plates of crisp-fried sole, cod and shellfish. Nothing fancy, just good food. In the heady days of long crab seasons and less restricted drag fishing, Lazio's had nearly any kind of seafood you could want -- fried, broiled or grilled -- as well as crab cioppino, stuffed sole, Louie's and Newburg's, everything fresh-caught and downright cheap.
Opened in 1944, Lazio's was attached to the Lazio family's fish processing plant in the Nelson Steamship building at the foot of C Street. The dining room was low-key with maps of Humboldt County on the placemats and a window that looked directly into the plant. Patrons could dip their bread in bouillabaisse as they watched the thousands of pounds of salmon, shrimp, crab and bottom fish moving down the line. In the early days, head cook "Sarge" Kilpatrick, a big Irish woman, ruled the bustling kitchen's fryers, broilers and burners with an iron fist. Lawrence Lazio, who took over the restaurant from his father Tom in 1960 recalls, "We had three ladies breading and frying on 8-hour shifts," to keep up with waves of orders.
Lawrence Lazio grew up in the plant and the restaurant, "shoveling sole onto a conveyor belt" from the age of 13. For him, Lazio's cannot be repeated. Beyond the prime dockside location and the fine chefs that came through the kitchen, it was the fresh off the boat fish supplied by the plant at cost that made it possible for Lazio's to turn out such incredible dishes so inexpensively. He squints a little behind his wire-rimmed glasses as he recounts the fish that were once plentiful, like sand dabs and rex sole, both staples on the old menu, now hard to come by.
Some of the recipes on the menu were old standards, like fish and chips, or Angels on Horseback (oysters wrapped in bacon and broiled). Others were family recipes from Lawrence's mother Annetta, who married Tom Lazio in San Francisco's North Beach in the 1920s. It was an arranged marriage to knit two Italian-American families together -- the sons and daughters of one family were betrothed to the sons and daughters of another -- and Tom lucked out and got a girl who could really cook. Her family was from seaside town of Santa Ella, near Palermo in Sicily, and at home she cooked simple, hearty seafood dishes that inspired the menu at the restaurant.
My own mother-in-law, a Sicilian-American herself, wheedled the recipe for Calamari Fettuccine out of one of the chefs at Lazio's in the mid 1970s (no small feat, though one wonders if Sarge would have given it up). The chef shared the recipe on the condition that my mother-in-law keep coming to the restaurant, which she did until it was sold in 1995. Food Network devotees may balk at the dried Italian seasoning or the Lawry's, but this is how they did it back in the day. Lawrence also let us in on his instructions for sole and eggs, a favorite from Lazio's heyday that was served with bread baked on the premises. But as for the secrets of the famous clam chowder, he smiles. "Some things have to stay secret."
Lazio's Calamari Fettucine
1 medium onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, sliced and divided
5 Tbs olive oil, divided
1/3 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 tsp Italian seasoning
1/2 tsp lemon seasoning
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
3 Tbs chopped fresh parsley
28 oz can diced stewed tomatoes
8 oz can tomato puree
1 1/4 lbs squid legs and bodies, cleaned and cut into 1/2 inch pieces
2 Tbs dry sherry
lemon juice (optional)
In a large pan, sauté chopped onions and 2 cloves of the garlic in 3 Tbs of olive oil until translucent. Add wine, Italian seasoning, lemon seasoning, chopped parsley, tomato puree and stewed tomatoes. Cook for about an hour, stirring occasionally, until somewhat thickened. (Cook longer if you prefer thicker sauce, and add a squeeze of lemon for a little more zing.) Cook the pasta until al dente, drain and set aside. Heat another large pan with 2 Tbs olive oil and sauté squid and 1 clove of garlic on high heat for 1 minute. Add the sherry and cook another 2 minutes. Add the tomato sauce to the squid mixture, then toss with the pasta and serve. Serves 4-6.
Lazio's Sole and Eggs
4 sole filets
1/2 Tbs melted butter
1 Tbs vegetable oil
Lawry's Seasoned Salt
8 slices fresh sourdough bread
Combine oil and butter in a shallow baking pan to keep the fish from sticking. Sprinkle the sole lightly on both sides with the Lawry's salt. Place filets in the baking pan and place on the highest rack in the broiler, as close as possible to the heat. Depending on the thickness of the filet, cook for 2 1/2-4 minutes without turning. Serve with toasted sourdough and eggs as you like them. Serves 4.