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Nothing fishy going on, just evolution for Italian Market fishmongers

The Italian Market’s longtime traditional fish sales are a-changing.

The corner-stall fishmonger in the "South 9th Street Curb Market" – titled as such from a historic plaque on the northeast corner of 9th and Christian streets – is as well-known as any fruit or vegetable vendor, shoe cobbler, dry-goods procurer or rare bookseller has been to the block. And the sale of freshly caught fish, crabs and other denizens of the local waters has been as commonplace to the Italian Market since the late 19th century as any produce or service.

“I was a girl when I first started selling fish with my father over 40 years ago, from high school through college,” said Janet Anastasi-Stechman, who runs the iconic and soon-to-close Anastasi Seafood restaurant/retail store with her brother, Salvatore Anastasi, on the doubly iconic corner of 9th & Washington – the Italian Market’s ground zero. “Back then, fish was considered a poor man’s food, and we sold a lot of it here,” she said, remarking on the working-class roots of this blue-collar neighborhood. “Now people see the health value in fish, so there’s that market. Things change.”  

And do they ever. In 2016, Jesse Giordano’s massive Captain Jesse’s Crabs and Seafood – an 8,000 square foot property – at 1100 E. Passyunk Ave. (the triangular corner of 8th & Washington) was closed, sold and razed for repurposing under the now-de rigeur mixed-use condo/retail/restaurant schematic.

Anastasi Seafood’s corner shop – where they’ve been located for 21 of their 40-plus years – is closing up shop, as Midwood Investment & Development purchased that property for a five-story mixed-use building with underground parking.

“I’m being asked to move,” said Anastasi-Stechman. “That’s a change I don’t really want – especially as business has only gotten better here in the last 10 years – but I think we’re making the most of it.”

The brother-and-sister duo not only bought a space to keep selling seafood at 1039 S. Ninth St. – across Washington and next to Giordano’s Produce – they’ll also take over a recently vacated space (the Neuf eatery) at 943 S. Ninth St. for the Anastasi Restaurant. Several smaller fishmongers remain on Ninth (Marco’s, R.J. Dargo), but the fact that the big seafood shops on the corners have closed or are in transition (Anastasi isn't scheduled to leave until autumn) is a shift in the tradition of Ninth Street.

“We changed with the times, just like this neighborhood has, but that doesn’t mean I won’t have fond memories of this corner when we leave,” she said. Famously, the spaces above the Italian Market’s storefronts were unused and barren. Within the last 15 years, owners have created an apartment market on these properties' upper floors. “There’s that, along with the fact that newer families with baby carriages and dogs – or singles – are moving in, and every house is filled,” she added. And they all have to eat. 

While Jesse Giordano commented that buying habits have changed from the old days (less bulk buying for larger families), Anastasi-Stechman has found that there are more working women who must make food work for their busy schedules.

“People shop more after work than ever before, which is why we stay open until after 8:00 p.m. and package our foods-to-go differently than we used to," she said.

Anastasi-Stechman would also like to see more food shops and businesses in the Italian Market stay open longer to accommodate the new working neighbors.

“When I was a kid, my grandmother shopped for the day. And she came back again the next day for more. People now are returning to the old ways," she said. "I’m heartsick we’re leaving, but you have to see the future as an opportunity – not a negative. We made this corner our own, and I’m proud. Things change.”