Ask a Waiter

Ron Riccio of Russ & Daughters Is Immune to Fish Stink

“I know I do smell like a fish when I leave.” Photo: Melissa Hom

As we reported earlier, Russ & DaughtersMarco Pierre White’s (and, for that matter, our own) favorite place for smoked salmon — is finally entering the blogosphere. Ron Riccio has worked the counter there for thirteen years, since before the store started using the Net to ship lox to displaced New Yorkers. We asked him how tastes have evolved over the years and how, exactly, he smells after a day of cutting lox.

Your customer base must’ve changed quite a bit in the past twenty years.
Before, it was mostly a Jewish clientele, and now it’s more mixed. Young people have moved into the neighborhood, and they’re taking over the spots their grandparents were dying to get out of.

Do you find a difference in what those two factions tend to order?
The older clientele tend to like more saltier stuff, like belly lox and schmaltz herring. The younger generation puts less emphasis on salt. There’s an infusion of new products like soy cream cheeses, tofu, scallion, and vegetable that older customers weren’t accustomed to. But the fish is still the same — it’s still whitefish and salmon and herring. Years ago, there were maybe two types of salmon — now there’s a variety, smoked eight different ways.

How do you guide people who aren’t sure what to get?
I’d ask them, “Do you like something rich and mild, like the Gaspé salmon, or something a little more smoked with a silky texture, like a Scottish, or maybe something a little leaner, like a Norwegian?” A lot of times customers come in and say, “Give me some lox.” The first thing we do is ask, “Just to make sure — you want lox? That’s the un-smoked salmon — it’s very salty.” Fifty percent of the time, they say, “Oh, no, I don’t want that type.”

How do you respond to people who say they don’t like fishy fish?
It’s a funny thing. I’ll give them a taste of a couple things. Generally something that’s not too strong, maybe a Norwegian

How many people get the wasabi caviar? Doesn’t the wasabi kill the fish taste?
It’s become pretty popular now, mostly as an adjunct to something else. There’s a sandwich now on the menu that was named after Heeb magazine. Someone from there dubbed it a great sandwich — it’s whitefish with horseradish, cream cheese, and a dollop to the wasabi roe.

What’s the most caviar anyone has ever bought?
We sent out maybe ten of our largest containers — they’re a half-kilo, which is maybe a little over a pound — for something in Texas. I think it was a political event.

Do you deliver to celebs in L.A. who miss New York food? How do you make sure it’s fresh?
Robert Evans, Norman Lear — someone just sent a package to Al Pacino as a gift. We have insulated boxes and ice gels. We ship by FedEx, next-day priority, so if we got a call at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, by 9:30 Thursday morning they’ll have their package.

What New York celebs stop in?
Harvey Keitel on a fairly regular basis; he’s very friendly. I believe he tends to like Scottish salmon and certain herrings. Oliver Sacks is a big fan.

What do people buy more of, bagels or bialys? And what makes your bagels so special?
It’s maybe about four-to-one bagels-to-bialys. We get the bialys from Kossar’s. We found a purveyor who makes bagels specifically for us. We like them not as puffy as you’ll find in some other places. We like to keep it firmer, smaller, and not as doughy.

What about bagel scooping? Do you mind doing that?
It’s not a big deal. If that’s the most we have to do to accommodate a customer, it’s not too bad.

Are there requests that get on your nerves?
I used to hear “There! There! Cut it there!” a lot more.

Is the cost of fish going up? What’s been the biggest increase?
Everything’s been going up quite a bit. Wild salmon has certainly gone up a lot — there’s a dearth of wild salmon going around.

Do you smell like fish at the end of the day?
I know I do smell like a fish when I leave, but, to be honest with you, I don’t even notice it anymore. Even when I come into the store, I don’t even notice a different aroma from outside, unless I’ve been on vacation for a while. I bike to work, so I don’t have to sit in the subway and worry about someone sitting next to me thinking, “This poor homeless guy…”

Ron Riccio of Russ & Daughters Is Immune to Fish Stink