If you eat this dish properly, chances are you’re not from NYC. Let’s face it: head-on shrimp is more synonymous with cities such as New Orleans or lands far-off in Asia than with the Big Apple. “Most New Yorkers, when they see a head-on shrimp, they say, ‘I’ll pass,’” says seafood sage Dave Pasternack, chef/partner at the fish-focused restaurants Esca in Hell’s Kitchen and the recently opened Barchetta in Chelsea.
The native New Yorker observes, “The way New Yorkers eat it depends how rich they are. People with a wealthy upbringing don’t like to touch their food. They don’t like to get their hands dirty. It’s very peculiar thing to me,” he says, adding that he grew up eating head-on shrimp all the time on visits to Manhattan’s Chinatown or Flushing. “A certain echelon in NYC don’t even want lobster in a shell!” he adds incredulously.
Those shell-and-head shunning cityfolk are crazy, according to Pasternack. “It’s the best part, man! It has all the gunk! It has all the flavor! It adds a separate kind of taste to the shrimp when you enjoy the head,” he explains. “All the innards are in it. That’s what tastes like the sea.”
So Pasternack advises bypassing delicate New Yorker types and asking a Southerner how to really eat head-on shrimp. “If you ask somebody from New Orleans, they will tell you to twist off the head — it will just pop open with your two fingers. Then you eat the tail and then suck the head. Suck out the innards and get that sweet, funky flavor of the meat.”
At Barchetta, Pasternack happens to be serving head-on shrimp, straight from Louisiana. In his mazzancolle dish ($22), the capped crustaceans are poached in broth and served with a fire-roasted lemon aioli. He urges New Yorkers, especially those well-bred ones, to put aside their prissiness and give ‘em a try. “Otherwise, you’re missing out,” he insists. “You are missing out on all the flavor!”
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