Fisherman Alex Villani, an 'Institution,' Ends 32 Years at Tribeca Greenmarket

Alex Villani this month at the Tribeca Greenmarket outside Washington Market Park. He says Saturdays are his best days. "I feel great dealing with everybody." Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib 

Posted
Oct. 27, 2020

This Saturday afternoon, Alex Villani of Blue Moon Fish will pack up his stuff—the well-worn coolers, ice tubs, whiteboard fish menu and all—and depart the Tribeca Greenmarket for the last time, after 32 years. It will be a melancholy day for the phalanx of loyal locals who line the sidewalk, awaiting their final order from Villani and staff.

But it’s not only the fresh seafood that they’ll miss about this Long Island fisherman.

“It’s like losing a part of the neighborhood here,” said Joel Roskind, who had just picked up his week’s supply of black bass, scallops and swordfish. “He’s a fixture.”

“Alex has such a fabulous personality,” said longtime Tribeca resident Suellen Epstein as she waited in line. Plus, she added, “You just know he has superior product here.

Ever since Villani, 68, announced his retirement from the market this month, regulars have approached him, one after the next, with heartfelt declarations of loss. Some even hoping to change his mind.

“Just give me a young man’s body and I’ll stay forever,” he replied to one with a laugh.

Villani has been a commercial fisherman for 50 years, and it’s taken a toll. “Bad back. Arthritis. I’m always aching,” he told the Trib recently. “Every fisherman has a bad back. There’s a lot of lifting. All the time. Constantly. And then you have bad knees, too, because you’re rolling around all day on your boat and after so many years I think you just wear them out.” 

“My doctor says, what do you expect? You abused your body your whole life,” he added. “And we laughed about it together.”

Making matters worse, the filleters for Blue Moon Fish closed up shop earlier this year. “We ended up doing a lot more work this year,” said Staphanie Villani, Alex’s wife and partner in Blue Moon Fish. “So we had a lot of problems getting things together for the market. They had helped us do a lot of the things that we had to do. Getting ice and loading and cleaning all the tubs.”

Among her many duties, Stephanie smokes the fish, runs the Grand Army stall and is in charge of the business side of Blue Moon Fish. For two decades, she did the selling at the Union Square market. She agrees with Alex that the time to slow down has finally come.

“You feel after a while you want things to be easier,” she said. “This just seemed like a good time to stop.” 

Most mornings over the past many years, Alex Villani has been rising at 2 a.m. to begin another day of trawling the waters of Long Island Sound, some four miles out from Mattituck Inlet. In the wee Saturday morning hours, he loads around 500 pounds of ice and 1,200 pounds of fish into his truck and makes the 100-mile drive to the city. “I feel great dealing with everybody,” he said. “But the rest of the days are too hard on my body.”

In spite of the difficult labor, Villani declares himself lucky to have enjoyed the best of two lives: the solitude of fishing and the sociability that comes with being at the market.

“I really enjoy the contrast,” he said, adding that it’s the people he will miss the most. “I’ve made friends I hope will last forever,” he said. 

Villani, who grew up in Chelsea, dropped out of college and chose instead to go clamming, something he’d done as a kid with family friends. “I bought a $600 boat and was in business immediately,” he said. “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.”

Five years later he turned to net fishing and eventually, in 1988, began selling retail in Tribeca, then adding Grand Army Plaza a couple of years later. “I started in Gansevoort and didn’t do too well the first day,” he recalled.” I went to Tribeca in the afternoon and started there right away.” 

No one has been selling at the market longer.

Now, Villani said, he’ll be selling his fish to wholesalers, without the pressure of a weekly haul. “It’s no big deal,” he said. “That’s kind of what I want.”

“When the world gets better,” Villani said, he looks forward to doing some traveling with Stephanie and their daughter Ruby,13. 

But in the meantime, he was asked, what does he plan to do with his well-earned leisure?

Villani laughed heartily. “Probably go fishing,” he said.