Octopus Garden is a specialty seafood market located along the far reaches of Avenue U in Bensonhurst. Operated by Vincent and Pina Cutrone, the unassuming corner storefront long been known to chefs like Eric Ripert of Le Bernadin as the go-to place for fresh octopus and sepia.

The nine year-old Brooklyn fish market specializes in, but is not limited to, all things cephalopod, a class that includes squid, octopus, and cuttlefish. The octopuses Cutrone sells range from just a few ounces to five pounds, or more. Sepia are hand-cleaned and tenderized in-house by a large, basin-sized machine that pummels the fish: it can be seen just behind the display counter toward the back of the shop. Tenderization is necessary: cephalopod cooking is a vaguely mysterious process complicated by folk wisdom and family secrets, proving to be difficult even to some professional chefs -- and one of the reasons that many restaurants leave octopus off their menus. Recipes often involve a few wine bottle corks and a slow simmering pot, as corks are rumored to contain a tenderizing enzyme. In other recipes, a good rock beating is advised (Octopus Garden does not sell rocks).

2007_02_food_display.jpg“There are all kinds of methods,” says Cutrone, “some say corks are old wives’ tales. We don’t decide. I’ll boil a larger octopus for 20 minutes, and let it rest for half an hour more.” For a quick primer, the minimalist kitchen wisdom of Mark Bittman, in a 1999 Splendid Table story for NPR, still holds, and can be found here. That story also quotes Cutrone.

Octopus Garden chooses other fish from the Fulton Market -- this week it's skate and sole fillet, Pacific rope cultured mussels, and tiny sardines shimmering blue and silver. Cutrone brings in sea urchin, still in its spiky shell -- not precleaned and mounted on plywood trays the way it’s usually (and dubiously) found at markets, if at all. Cutrone prefers Pacific mussels for their smoother, less briny flavor. “You can eat them raw,” he says, half-shell style. Indeed, while Gothamist was speaking with Cutrone about the low fat content of squid, a regular Octopus Garden customer (who had just driven in from New Jersey for a four pound bag of mussels) pulled a clam knife from the ice and began to shuck and eat raw mussels, just to see how many he could get down while his order was being filled. When Gothamist visited for a second time, chef Vito Randazzo of Graziella’s Restaurant stopped in to purchase cockles for his Clinton Hill restaurant. “There’s no place like it here,” he said. As Cutrone lifted the nine-pound octopus seen in the picture above, Randazzo added, “he has the best stuff." On the versatility of the product, Randazzo said, "Italians like to eat octopus after coffee to cap off a meal.”

2007_02_food_clams.jpgWhile not exactly known as a place to stock up on dry goods, Octopus Garden has a quirky selection of many hard-to-find foods. In addition to olives imported from Bari and a selection of dried beans and nuts, Octopus Garden also sells cipollini onion confit, huge ziploc bags of fresh-frozen Porcini mushrooms, and puntarelle, a barrel-shaped cold weather chicory related to the dandelion green, which Cutrone imports from California. It is usually braised, hit with a little sea salt, and dressed with some olive oil and lemon. Paired with an inexpensive bottle of white wine, it makes a perfect complement to a plate of char-grilled octopus.

Octopus Garden
86 Avenue U
N-train to Avenue U; D-train to 25th Avenue Station