If you were a seafood lover in New York City between 1930 and 1998, there’s a decent chance you ate at a joint called Sloppy Louie’s.
It was located in Lower Manhattan, at 92 South Street, at the southwest corner of South and Fulton streets. It’s owner, Louis Morini, was born in 1887 in Recco, Italy, a fishing and resort village on the Riviera just east of Genoa. His father was a fisherman, and specialized in catching squid and octopus. In 1905, at the tender age of 17, Morini immigrated to the U.S., and soon found restaurant work in the city. He would wait tables all over the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan for the next 25 years.
But by 1930, Morini wanted to become his own boss, and began scouting locations in midtown. He also got a tip about a rough-around-the-edges place farther downtown, next to the Fulton Fish Market, and Morini went for a look. He was captivated at once, as the area reminded him of his childhood in Recco: “The fish smell, the general gone-to-pot look, the trading that goes on in the streets, the roofs over the sidewalks, the cats in corners gnawing on fish heads, the gulls in the gutters, the way everybody’s on to everybody else, the quarreling and the arguing,” Morini explained to famed New Yorker columnist Joseph Mitchell (pictured above, standing near South Street). Indeed, the Fulton Fish Market boasted “forty to sixty kinds of finfish and shellfish from the East Coast, the West Coast, the Gulf Coast, and half a dozen foreign countries.” The market, amazingly, served as the city’s primary wholesale seafood source from 1822 till it moved to Hunts Point in the Bronx in 2005.
Morini decided to purchase the lease of the former Fulton Restaurant, which had been run by John Barbagelata and nicknamed “Sloppy John’s” by the locals. Morini gave his new establishment the simple title of “Louie’s Restaurant.” It didn’t take long for the wisecracking fishmongers to dub it “Sloppy Louie’s,” and the more Morini chafed at the moniker, the more it stuck. So, Morini wisely adopted an if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em attitude, and officially changed the name to “Sloppy Louie’s.” (For the record, Morini was anything but sloppy; described as “fastidious,” he dressed impeccably in suits from a high-priced tailor in the financial district.)
As described in his 1976 obituary in the New York Times, the service at Sloppy Louie’s “was fast, simple and direct. He always believed in stating plainly on the menu the name of the seafood and its provenance.” For example, the Times cited a menu from 1959 that listed Montauk Swordfish, Virginia Cape Sea Bass Fillet, Massachusetts Codfish, Provincetown Haddock Fillet and Long Island Calamari. (His restaurant sounds a lot like many modern farm-to-table establishments that tout the provenance of their ingredients.)
Morini was described by Joseph Mitchell as “five feet six, and stocky,” and having “an owl-like face—his nose is hooked, his eyebrows are tufted, and his eyes are large and brown and observant. He is white-haired. His complexion is reddish, and the backs of his hands are speckled with freckles and liver spots.”
Mitchell became not just a regular of Sloppy Louie’s but a friend of Morini, lovingly immortalizing the restaurant and surrounding neighborhood in his legendary 1952 book, Up in the Old Hotel. Mitchell noted that many of Louie’s dishes “are rarely served in other restaurants,” notably “cod cheeks, salmon cheeks, cod tongues, sturgeon liver, blue-shark steak, tuna steak, squid stew, and five kinds of roe—shad roe, cod roe, mackerel roe, herring roe, and yellow-pike roe.” Mitchel ventured that “Louie’s undoubtedly serves a wider variety of seafood than any other restaurant in the country.”
He was particularly fond of Louie’s in the mornings, where he could enjoy “a big, inexpensive, invigorating breakfast—a kippered herring and scrambled eggs, or a shad-roe omelet, or split sea scallops and bacon, or some other breakfast specialty of the place.”
During its 68-year tenure, Louie’s was an integral part of the neighborhood, particularly among the Fulton Fish Market crowd, becoming its unofficial breakfast joint. But while Louie’s attracted a very working-class clientele, as the 20th century progressed, the restaurant became popular with the white-collar crowd, primarily Wall Street types. While Morini undoubtedly enjoyed his resulting prosperity, he complained to Mitchell that the idea of customers having to wait in line for lunch “gets on his nerves.”
Sloppy Louie’s opened before dawn, and was a favorite breakfast joint of the dockworkers. It rarely stayed open past 8:00 PM, and never had a liquor license (though B.Y.O. was permitted). His bouillabaisse (see the recipe below) was world renowned and went by the Italian name ciuppin di pesce.
The bouillabaisse was described in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1949 as containing as many as a dozen different varieties of fish, in addition to “oysters, clams or scallops” and “shrimp or crab.” You know, whatever was in season and whatever they had on hand at the market. A year later, the Detroit Free Press reported that “broiled baby lobster, fried eel, oysters, shrimp and pan-fried fish” were the house specialties, and the recipe for its Whiting Stew could be found in 1955’s Holiday Book of Food and Drink. Like I said, if you were a seafood lover, there was something at Louie’s for you.
The layout of Louie’s was pretty simple, twelve rectangular tables, two rows of six each, jutting out from opposing walls creating a wide aisle in between. A crowded lunchtime would see as many as 80 diners. The tables were made of black walnut, sturdy as a battleship. Seating was communal, resulting in interesting conversations among the eclectic diners that Louie’s attracted. The walls were mirrored, and near the door to the kitchen, Morini would handwrite with moistened chalk each day’s menu. The ceiling was covered with stamped tin, and three electric fans with wooden blades, resembling airplane propellers, moved the often stale air around.
Louie’s was located at end of the historic Schermerhorn Row Block, which was made up of a series of red brick buildings that date back to around to the early 1800s. After the Civil War, according to James M. Lindgren’s Preserving South Street Seaport: The Dream and Reality of a New York Urban Renewal District, the Schermerhorn family renovated the buildings, adding a sixth floor and a mansard roof.
One building housed the new Fulton Ferry Hotel, which operated until at least the 1930s. In the hotel’s early days, the South Street ports teemed with ferry boats bound for Brooklyn, and ocean-going steamships carrying goods and passengers to and from ports of call worldwide. As a result, the Fulton Ferry Hotel and surrounding bars did a booming business, including the Hotel’s ground floor saloon, which later housed Louie’s.
But when the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883, and the steamship lines left for roomier slips on the bank of the Hudson River, the neighborhood got a bit seedier, and the old hotel became, in the words of Mitchell in his most famous story, “one of those waterfront hotels that rummies hole up in, and old men on pensions, and old nuts, and sailors on the beach.” Eventually, the old hotel closed down for good, and Morini was left with two abandoned floors above his restaurant. One he used for storage and additional seating, the others he left to gather dust.
Today, Blazing Saddles, a bicycle rental shop, occupies the location of Louie’s. Next door is Clio Nicci, an upscale eyewear retailer. During the 1980s and 1990s, the Clio Nicci space was occupied by an English-style bar called the North Star Pub, where none other than noted bartending great and cocktail writer Gary Regan worked behind the stick. Regan told me that many a time folks would wander into North Star, thinking it was Louie’s.
Indeed, from 1930 until its demise in 1998, Sloppy Louie’s was an icon among New York eateries. Now 20 years later, it’s on an ever-growing list of now lost joints that will forever be in our hearts.
For a taste of Sloppy Louie’s, try making its award-winning ciuppin di pesce. You won’t be disappointed.
Ciuppin di Pesce
1 medium Carrot, sliced
2 medium Onions, sliced
1 clove Garlic
4 Tbsp Olive oil
3 lbs Fish in season, cooked and boned
1 cup Tomatoes
1 Bay leaf
2 cups Fish stock or water
1 dozen Oysters, clams or scallops
1 cup Shrimp or crab
3 tsp Salt
.5 tsp Pepper
2 Tbsp Lemon juice
.25 cup Sherry
Brown the carrot, onions, and garlic in hot olive oil in a large pot. Remove the garlic clove. Add the fish, tomatoes, bay leaf and stock. Allow the mixture to simmer for 15 minutes. Remove the bay leaf and add all the remaining ingredients, except for the sherry. Add the sherry right before serving.
The recipe is adapted from a 1949 story in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.