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Product Spotlight: Calamari

Squid product forms provide myriad menu options

Restaurants are starting to transcend the typical
    rings-and-tentacles calamari dish. - Photo by Laura Lee Dobson
By April Forristall
November 01, 2007

The traditional image of calamari is a plate piled high with fried rings and accompanied by a marinara dipping sauce. Since first appearing on menus nationwide in the 1970s, calamari can be found at casual-dining chains to white tablecloths. But in recent years, calamari, the Italian term for squid, has shed its breaded identity and now applies to 
the mollusk prepared in a variety of ways.

"Calamari is almost its own brand, in the sense of the name," says Ruth Levy, COO for Stavis Seafoods in Boston. "It can go anywhere. It's ubiquitous."

Stavis carries 850 frozen and 150 fresh squid products. Levy and Stavis CEO Richard Stavis say calamari is a very significant part of their business.

"It is the single-largest item in terms of pounds, and a continuously growing segment of our business," says Stavis, adding that the product has seen phenomenal growth for many years.

Part of the reason for calamari's steady growth is that it is a low-cost item that pays a big dividend. "There is no product loss. It is 100 percent usable," says Levy.

Chef Chris Gilbert of Abalonetti Seafood Trattoria in Monterey, Calif., agrees.

"We use 80 percent of the squid. Only the eyes and the ink get thrown out," he says. Calamari's plate cost is also very appealing to chefs.

"Fried calamari as an appetizer per-pound price is less than one-third the price of a fried clam appetizer, which is often an alternative [for calamari]," explains Stavis, adding that the same price comparison applies to a scallop appetizer.

When compared with labor costs, one calamari appetizer costs about 20 cents. "It's not something that takes a lot of time or effort and it tastes great," 
says Gilbert.

However, since the fried calamari appetizer is so popular, restaurants tend to overlook other squid preparations. According to Stavis, chefs are astonished to discover the flexibility of calamari. Only in recent years have more restaurants begun to menu it as a center-of-the-plate protein.

"First operators wanted it whole, then it was tubes and tentacles, then just tubes, then rings only or rings and tentacles, and now it's everything," says Levy.

Calamari's varying product forms make it easy to menu.

"There are so many things you can do with [calamari]. It's very versatile, you can add it to any plate," says Gilbert. "It's definitely underappreciated for something that can be used so easily. "

Restaurants are using squid steaks grilled on salads, and fried squid strips similar to chicken fingers. "More and more operators are looking at additional forms and products for grilling and sautéing," says Stavis.

At Abalonetti, Gilbert has no problem finding new ways to serve calamari. The restaurant purchases about 700 pounds of calamari bi-weekly and devotes an entire menu section to calamari dishes.

The most popular selection at Abalonetti is its French fried calamari cutlets served with Parmesan and mozzarella cheese over eggplant topped with a marinara sauce, but the fried appetizer is always a hit. If he has time, Gilbert will greet customers with samples and urge them to try 
the calamari.

"People can be hesitant try to it because they never have before, or because of the way it looks," he explains. "But once they do, most people love it."

"When I look at restaurants, close to three-quarters of them have a calamari [menu item]," says Stavis. "It's even transcended seafood restaurants, that's the really amazing thing."

Not bad for a species that got its start in bait shops.

 

Editorial Assistant April Forristall can be e-mailed at aforristall@divcom.com

 

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