At the marble bar of La Cova Fumada in Barceloneta, I’m waiting for a fisherman to come and show me his shellfish, cooked here every day. I could just sip a drink and twiddle my thumbs, but why do that, when before me stand mountains of bombas (potato balls), tiers of calamares a la romana (squid, breaded then deep-fried), layers of crisp golden artichokes, and buckets of glistening allioli (Catalan-style eggless garlic mayonnaise)? The barman, Magí Solé, siphons me off a chilled red wine from what looks like a 19th-century chemistry set. I’ll take a couple of bombas, I tell him.
Barceloneta’s narrow streets once housed poor sailors who worked on ships in the adjoining port and laborers who toiled in factories that fouled this seaside neighborhood of Barcelona. Short-line trains shuttled supplies from the piers to the assembly lines and took the finished goods back. As late as the 1980s, the waterfront was a polluted, congested, fenced-off commercial dockland, the gray beach crowded with a shantytown of xiringuitos, beachside drinking shacks. Now Barceloneta is the starting point for a seven-mile stretch of imported golden sand and home to a newly built W Hotel where models and the men who love them dip their toes into an infinity pool and peer over martinis at the quaint old neighborhood. Cramped apartments that were once shared by four fishermen’s families now shelter lone bachelors who commute to the cosmopolitan center across the Ronda del Litoral, the auto bypass built to ease traffic for the 1992 Olympics. La Cova Fumada is one of the few places where the old and the new Barcelonetas converge: Hipster arrivistes sample expensive prawns next to longtime locals biting into Magí’s bombas.
I’ve ordered drinks from Magí for years, and the guy’s never been a talker. But when I ask him about the potato balls, he’s downright effusive. “There are only five people in the world who know how to make the bomba,” Magí says. “Me, my mother, my father, my brother, and one notario [a Spanish notary public, who functions like an estate attorney].”
I bite into a bomba bathed in milky allioli and topped with a button of bright red hot sauce, then take the bait: “All right, why the notario?”
“If—and only if—my mother, father, brother, and I are all struck dead at the same moment,” Magí says, smiling, “the notario has been instructed to share the recipe with our next of kin.”
Magí’s family has run La Cova for 65 years. They came up with their best seller, a deep-fried potato ball with a bite of blood sausage inside, 54 years ago. A Barcelona friend told me that he thought the bomba was named for a fascist bomb attack that struck a Barceloneta grammar school during the Spanish civil war. Magí says no. “When we first created the dish, friends and customers tasted it to see if it would sell. After taking a bite, one friend said, ‘This is spicy, it’s like a bomba (bomb),’ so the name stuck.”
The fisherman I’ve been waiting for, José Antonio Caparrós, ducks into the bar, takes a quinto (a small bottle of beer), and gestures to the gambas on the counter. “Those are mine,” he says and asks for a plate. I was raised on the big, white, headless foodstuff known as shrimp in the United States. To say that gambas are a kind of shrimp is like saying truffles are a kind of mushroom. As Caparrós deftly separates the creatures’ heads from their bodies, he tells me the reason gambas are so flavorful: They’re only caught deep, thousands of feet below sea level, away from the crud floating near the ocean’s surface. Following his lead, I sip the orange liquid from the head; it’s briny, creamy, and sweet. To slather on cocktail sauce—or any sauce at all—would be sacrilege. I tell Caparrós that in the U.S. it’s now hard to buy shrimp with the heads on, even in New York City. “Here also things are changing,” he says. “Before, to eat well was the most important thing, not just for rich people, for everyone. Now they’ve all got fancy cars, big apartments, nice TVs, but they eat frozen shrimp.”
Caparrós is part of a new culinary movement called Barceloneta Cuina. (The Catalan word cuina means cuisine.) When I ask its aim, he tells me the movement exists “para defender la cocina del barrio,” which, formally translated, means to protect the cuisine of the neighborhood. I prefer the more militant version of the Spanish—to defend the cooking of the barrio. This call to arms unites six restaurants: Can Solé and Can Ramonet, old-school places that have served Barceloneta for centuries; Kaiku and La Mar Salada, innovative seafront spots that offer much more than the usual paellas and sautéed shrimp; and Lluçanès and Somorrostro, two nouvelle-style places in the barrio’s interior. Barceloneta Cuina’s ultimate goal isn’t just to explore distinctive dishes and fresh seafood, it’s also to teach the neighborhood’s residents the lost culinary traditions and to inspire them to carry on those traditions themselves. But there are opposing forces to contend with: the ongoing gentrification that’s been whittling away at the barrio’s old ways, not to mention the prefab paella joints all over the place.
Weaving back home on my bike along Barceloneta’s seafront main drag, I spot some of these foes. There must be a deep, hot cavern in foodie hell reserved for the tourist traps on this street, where you can smell the sea but taste only long-frozen seafood. And an even more scorching inferno must await the paella proprietors who advertise with billboards supplied by mass manufacturers of processed paella mix, displaying lurid close-ups of tender-looking squid and ocean-fresh prawns atop garish yellow rice.
The next day I’m back in Barceloneta at La Lonja, the commercial fish market that is one of the city’s sources of seafood straight off the boat. Perversely, this hub stands just across the street from the frozen paella walk of shame. I’ve been down this passeig dozens of times, but I never noticed the market because it lies behind a guarded portal open only to fishmongers, chefs, and restaurateurs. I walk in with Ángel Pascual, a local chef and a foot soldier in the Barceloneta Cuina movement. “The government protects this place as if it’s a police barracks or a jail,” he whispers as we pass a security guard. “The fishermen want to open it up—to tourists, to locals, to anyone who wants to see where what they eat actually comes from.”
Though Ángel owns and cooks at Lluçanès, Barceloneta’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, his unpretentious grin and bouncy, ’70s-style hairdo make him look more like a retired soccer goalie than a master chef. He waves to a crouching fisherman and the guy tosses me a spiky erizo, a sea urchin, to examine. The large day boats that catch all kinds of fish and shellfish have docked by now, and the men on deck scramble to sort their catch, preparing for the Dutch auction here every evening except Saturday and Sunday. Small night boats, weighed down by long rows of lights, will head out later to illuminate, hypnotize, and harvest sardines.
Ángel jumps aboard a ship called La Farossa and waves at me to follow. The ship’s owner stands in front of mounds of shellfish, his men kneeling behind him, grouping shrimp by size. Ángel grabs one of the gambas crawling across the deck. “This neighborhood has seafood that comes straight off boats docked a couple hundred meters from our restaurants,” he says, dangling the creature by its red tail. (This, a gamba roja, is red, even when raw.) “What these gambas eat, where they live—it all makes for their special taste. Our gambas are different from the gambas up or down the coast. They are Barceloneta gambas.”
Now Ángel spots a prehistoric-looking sea creature and excuses himself, hustling over to identify it. Pau Huguet, the boat’s captain, more of a realist than Ángel, leans in and confides, “Actually, we catch these gambas a few miles away, down by Vilanova, not right here off Barceloneta. I’m not sure you’d be able to taste the difference between these gambas and the ones a hundred miles north.” He nods at a fisherman to off-load the catch. “They taste great, but all pretty much the same, at least to me. Still, I’m glad some of the restaurants here use our stuff. That’s the way it should be.”
Men push carts piled high with seafood toward the covered market. One shirtless guy, his back adorned with a faded Poseidon tattoo, stares at the outsiders in the crowd. The auction arena features a few short rows of concrete seating stacked above a conveyor belt. Blue crates speed down the belt. Before me are not just gambas, langostinos (gambas’ less flavorful cousins), langostas (lobsters) and bogavantes (bigger, more expensive lobsters), but also cigalas (a type of mini-lobster), cuttlefish, and piles of black sea urchins. And that’s just the shellfish. There are also three kinds of octopus—white, rock, and musky—and multifarious big and small squid.
The starting price of each crate is set by the auctioneer, and then the contest begins. The price on the LED board starts to drop fast, cent by cent, until someone finally presses his remote and buys the crate. The chef at Kaiku, Hug (pronounced oog) Pla Cortés, looks up at the auction board. The per-kilo price of a crate of rape, or monkfish, is rapidly nearing zero. The crate pauses under the spotlight, where it will sit until sold. Finally Hug pulls the trigger on a menacing monkfish that spills over the sides of the container. Hug’s market nickname, Lagarto (Lizard), flashes on the display, and his purchase is whisked off the runway.
“As a chef, coming here a lot, I really get to know my product,” Hug says. “I can also bargain down middlemen to the right price, because I know exactly what they pay at the source.” Hug stacks the crates of seafood he’s won on a metal cart and rolls it across the street to Kaiku, where he’ll prep for lunch tomorrow by trimming octopus tentacles and carving up monkfish fillets.
When I visit a few days later, things at Kaiku are quiet. The dining room is empty, and on the terrace only one long table is occupied. I turn to the friend who invited me and ask him quietly whether he really wants to eat at such an unpopular place. “It’s closed,” he says. “They don’t open for dinner. We’re here for a private party hosted by Rafa, the guy who owns it.”
The head chef, Hug, helps bus tables, the waitress cooks gambas, and we down cold bottles of lightly effervescent txakoli, the Basque wine. Everybody pitches in with a dish, a special bottle of wine, or some elbow grease.
After the meal, as we drink our cortados (espresso cut with milk), I ask Rafa Alberdi, Kaiku’s owner, why he doesn’t open at night. “I have enough business during the day,” he says. “I can have 20 friends over for dinner whenever I want. Why do I need more?”
Today, Rafa’s mom still makes change at the till and polishes the forks, but her son has gradually turned the place into something very different from the simple snack bar it was when he took it over 10 years ago. The chef, Hug, prepares an unusual smoked rice dish every day, mixed with seafood straight from La Lonja. When retired fishermen show up next door with buckets of obscure sea creatures they’ve caught in local waters, Rafa happily buys up all he can. That way, alongside plates of the standard sautéed clams, he can offer more exotic dishes, such as anemones tempura. Rafa’s decision to remain closed at dinner—despite the surging foot traffic and the ongoing transformation of Barceloneta—seems to be his way of clinging to one neighborhood value: Family and friends are more important than pesetas.
Like the other members of Barceloneta Cuina, Rafa feels a new pride in his hometown’s native offerings. Most of the seafood eaten in Barcelona comes from other ports, not Barceloneta. Which is why, Rafa says, many of the city’s residents don’t know that some seafood does come from Barcelona’s own shores. “We’re organizing a tasting of the gambas caught near Barceloneta,” he tells me. “Our region’s best chefs will do a blind tasting to compare the other prawns of Catalonia with the ones caught here.” The group is also trying to rediscover and preserve the barrio’s best recipes. “We have at least two dishes that are originally from this neighborhood,” he says. “The bomba, from La Cova Fumada, and the zarzuela, a fish stew. It’s a dish you can still find in a few older restaurants but that’s been largely forgotten. We want to bring it back. This year, every one of the Barceloneta Cuina restaurants is going to offer its own interpretation of the zarzuela.”
A few days after our visit to La Lonja, Ángel Pascual is hard at work on his zarzuela in his restaurant, Lluçanès, on the second floor of the recently reconstructed Barceloneta market. Downstairs are fish and vegetable sellers hawking their wares, but upstairs is Ángel’s domain: an enormous, shiny, so-clean-you-can-eat-off-the-floor kitchen with an open plan design, three counter seats that front the range, and a few tables that have lots of elbow room. Our main event today is his zarzuela, but Ángel says he’ll first walk me through a few small dishes, which turns out to mean about 10 carefully composed plates. The first is a croquette that looks like the kind of thing you’d get at any neighborhood bar. Ángel’s harmonious but downright weird flavor combination—spinach, marcona almonds, and squid ink—hits me after I’ve popped the morsel in my mouth. I suddenly feel cheated by all the so-called croquettes I’ve eaten over the years.
Ángel knows every fisherman at the port, lives in an apartment with a view of La Lonja, and obviously cares deeply for this barrio, so I’d pegged him as a native son, like Rafa. “I actually moved here three years ago,” he tells me. “I had this same restaurant up north in the mountains of Catalonia. People knew the place, we were doing well, but I wanted something more, so I closed that down and reopened here.” He unwraps a big white truffle, takes a whiff, and tosses it to me. “This is from my hometown.”
After he shows me the raw elements of the zarzuela—mussels, squid, gambas, monkfish—Ángel unveils a surprise: a bowl of rice with a strange-shaped fried food on top. “Espardenya,” Ángel says. The Catalan word normally means a rope-soled traditional shoe, similar to an espadrille, but espardenya can also mean a local sea slug, the rarest seafood in the Mediterranean. This one tastes like a more substantial and complex kind of scallop. The rice underneath is mixed with orange slivers of the sea urchin we’d seen at the market. “Up in the mountains,” Ángel says, “my cooking was all about the products we had there: truffles, pigs, hens, chestnuts. Now I’m doing the same kind of thing but with mar y montaña” (literally “sea and mountains,” colloquially “surf and turf”). I chase the sea slug and sea urchin rice with a square of Catalan pork cooked by the sous-vide method, then browned on the outside and served with a yellow mushroom called a rossinyol.
Ten dishes and at least a bottle and a half of red Priorat later, Ángel unveils his zarzuela: a rectangular flatbread covered in a layer of flavored gelatin, then topped with each individually cooked piece of seafood. “You eat each kind of fish separately,” he tells me. I work my way across, stopping for a minute to savor the lobster-like cigala. “The presentation is new,” Ángel says. “But the point of my cooking, and of Barceloneta Cuina, is to respect the old flavors.”
The heart of Barceloneta—and its historic cuisine— isn’t the open market square where Lluçanès and La Cova Fumada sit or the seafront promenade that runs past Kaiku. It’s the interior of the neighborhood, with tight streets that look more like Naples’ Quartieri Spagnoli than any part of Spain. Restaurant Can Solé, on one of these streets, dates back to 1903 and is one of the few restaurants to have served zarzuela for the last hundred years. When we enter for lunch, I spy Josep Maria García, the proprietor, tucking into a big salad at his table beside the kitchen. I turn to my dining companion, Gonzalo Escuder. “He’s eating a salad,” I say. “Not a good sign.” Gonzalo gives me one of those Spanish hand-and-face gestures that means be patient, or perhaps more accurately, don’t be an asshole. When Josep Maria comes over I tell him we’re here for his traditional specialties.
“You start with baby cuttlefish in sauce, then you have a zarzuela,” he says. After cuttlefish in tomato sauce, Josep Maria arrives with our zarzuela—monkfish, squid, gambas, and more in an aromatic reddish-brown sauce—and proceeds to divide it up between us. “You always eat it with bread,” he says, as he sits down to talk.
“So this was a fisherman’s dish?” I ask.
“Never,” he replies, looking at me as if I’m an idiot. “It’s too expensive for fishermen—they’d be eating their profits. Anyway, what they really want when they’re on shore is a big chunk of meat.” Now I’m thoroughly confused—I thought zarzuela was native to this fisherman’s district—but I’m also deeply enjoying the dish, a distillation of the best and freshest ingredients from La Lonja. “It was always made here, but for people from outside,” Josep Maria explains. “It’s called a zarzuela because at the turn of the last century, bourgeois Barcelonans came here to eat it after they listened to a zarzuela, a kind of Spanish operetta, at the Palau de la Música. I still get some old people who do that.”
After a couple more glasses of wine, Josep Maria confides that he has some unlikely enemies in his quest to preserve the old cooking of Barceloneta.“I get these new guys working here,” he says, laughing. “’Josep Maria,’ they say to me, ‘We should add a pinch more of this, cook that for a shorter time.’” He shakes his head. “This isn’t a restaurant for auteurs. It’s a place where you come to eat a dish that tastes exactly how you remember it from 65 years ago, when you came here and had it with your mom and dad for the first time.”
It’s impossible to compare Josep Maria’s ultraorthodox zarzuela with Ángel’s innovative one. Yet Barcelona Cuina understands that what keeps alive the cuisine of a neighborhood—or a nation—is having chefs who would sooner die than alter a recipe, just around the corner from chefs who live to create experimental dishes of their own.
At these restaurants, the fish is fresh and the flavor is local.
Carrer de la Maquinista, 17
HOUSE SPECIALTIES: Paella with meat and seafood, paella marinera (with only fish), arroz con bogavante (a soupy rice with lobster), green beans with baby squid.
Plaça del Mar, 1
HOUSE SPECIALTIES: Smoked rice, zamburiña con salsa minya (made with baby scallops, ginger, lime juice, black pepper, olive oil, salt, and chef Hug’s secret sauce).
La Cova Fumada
Carrer Baluard, 56, Plaça Poeta Boscà
HOUSE SPECIALTIES: Bombas, fried artichokes, grilled sardines, deep-fried calamari, gambas rojas from La Lonja.
La Mar Salada
Passeig Joan de Borbó, 58-59
HOUSE SPECIALTIES: A leaner cousin of zarzuela, called suquet de rapé or rapé suquet (a broth made with rockfish, clams, tomato, onion, and potato), buñuelos de bogavante (lobster fritters).
Mercat de la Barceloneta, Plaça de la Font, 1
HOUSE SPECIALTIES: A deconstructed version of zarzuela, “gray foot” chicken cannoli (made with wild game from the mountains of Catalonia). The chef’s tasting menu is a good bet.
Restaurant Can Solé
Carrer Sant Carles, 4
HOUSE SPECIALTIES: Traditional zarzuela, croquettes (made with duck liver and ham from the Jabugo region).
Carrer Sant Carles, 11
HOUSE SPECIALTIES: The menu changes daily, but the seafood cocktail is usually some mix of lobster, jurel (horse mackerel) sashimi, clams, and octopus in a citrus vinaigrette.
Traditional Zarzuela Recipe
Recipe adapted from Barceloneta’s Restaurant Can Solé
3 rockfish1 bunch leeks, chopped1 onion, chopped1 bay leaf3 garlic cloves1 cup extra virgin olive oil2 or 3 squid, sliced3 large ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped1 cup sherry1 cup cognac, brandy, or rum16 mussels, scrubbed and debearded4 monkfish filets4 pieces grouper or sea bass4 pieces hake4 shrimp4 large crayfish1⁄4 cup flourSalt and pepper, to taste10 almonds, peeled and roasted3 Galleta María biscuits (2 slices of toasted bread work, too)12 croutons
1. Prepare a fish broth by boiling rockfish for four to five hours with leeks, half the onion, bay leaf, and garlic. Strain broth and set aside.
2. Heat oil in a frying pan. When it is hot, add squid and cook until it turns golden brown. Add remaining onions, fry until brown, then add tomatoes. Fry on high heat. Add sherry and liquor. Once liquors have evaporated, put everything into a shallow clay (or steel) pot.
3. In a separate pot, steam mussels and add them to the squid mixture.
4. Coat remaining fish and shellfish with a light dusting of flour. In the original frying pan use the remaining oil, plus more if necessary, to cook fish. Add salt and pepper.
5. As each item cooks, add it to the clay pot. Ladle in rockfish broth to cover all fish.
6. Use a mortar and pestle (or food processor) to make a paste from the almonds and the biscuits. Once you have made a fine paste, add a little bit of broth to dilute it and then pour this over the dish.
7. Put the clay pot on the stove for a few minutes to finish cooking, and then put croutons on top and serve.
Tom Downey I write about the worlds of Brooklyn firemen, Yemeni jihadis, Chinese internet vigilantes, Malagasy river guides, and Barcelona private eyes—anyone whose story moves me. A year before 9/11, I began producing a television documentary and reporting a book about a group of elite rescue firemen in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn. The Last Men Out: Life on the Edge at Rescue 2 Firehouse, published by Henry Holt, follows ten years in the life of their company, from the high of knocking down a wall of flames to the low of losing a brother.