San Pedro Fish Market hopes for smooth sailing in waterfront revamp

Jackie Gomez, left, and Eddie Tapia take a selfie at the San Pedro Fish Market. A planned development at neaerby Ports O' Call has owner Tommy Amalfitano concerned.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

The smell of raw fish wafts through the corridors of the San Pedro Fish Market as Tommy Amalfitano orders a line cook to pull a fish off the grill.

“Don’t overcook that,” the 72-year-old says from across the counter. “A fish like that shouldn’t be overcooked.”

If there’s anyone who knows how to cook a striped sea bass or scale a tuna, it’s Amalfitano. He has run the San Pedro Fish Market in some form or another for almost 60 years. Tan, short and sturdy, Amalfitano climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania two years ago and will quickly hop behind a register when the lines stretch out the door.


His uncle started the market in 1957 and charged his son and Amalfitano with running the establishment. Amalfitano now runs the business — at its current location next to the famed Ports O’ Call Village since 1982 — with his late cousin’s four children, including Mike Ungaro, who declares: “Tommy says that if he were to die on a Friday, that we should throw him in the freezer, count up the money we made and bury him on Monday.”

But now, the gritty village overlooking giant ships, port cranes and various forms of industry appears to be going upscale with a major face lift.

Earlier this month, the Port of Los Angeles approved a proposal that would allow two developers to sign a new ground lease at Ports O’ Call by the end of the year. They could then rebuild the area.

It’s the latest phase in a years-long effort to spruce up the decidedly blue-collar district of San Pedro. Over the last decade, the city has created portside promenades, a streetcar line and an entertainment plaza right on the waterfront.

“There’s so much pent-up expectation,” said Elise Swanson, president and chief executive of the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce. “Hopefully, they take the best of what’s there and mix the old and the new.”

Swanson and others are excited to see what San Pedro-based Jerico Development and the Ratkovich Group have in store for that area of the waterfront.

The developers have embarked on a joint venture called the L.A. Waterfront Alliance. They want to transform 150,000 of the 300,000 square feet allocated by the port into a gleaming development with parks, shops and restaurants. The port must also complete roughly $52 million in infrastructure projects to make the area more accessible to the public.

This worries Amalfitano, who wants the development but is fearful of a project that would cause his business to suffer. The port plans to extend a 30-foot-wide promenade along the water, which would cut through the heart of the fish market’s footprint. The project should be done no later than 2019, developers and port officials say.

“We’re all right with what’s happening,” said Amalfitano over a lunch of grilled swordfish, shrimp and vegetables. “We just want it to be done right, so we don’t lose any business and can continue to keep everyone working.”

The market occupies 34,000 square feet, and Amalfitano and Ungaro believe it needs to double in size to better accommodate projected growth.

The developers and officials from the port say the market has nothing to fear.

“I’ve said to Tommy and Mike, ‘Tell the developers what you want,’ ” said Doane Liu, deputy executive director and chief of staff at the Port of Los Angeles. “They’re the linchpin. They’re the anchor. The developers are going to want those million people that they bring every year.” (Last year the fish market and restaurant served about 1.1 million visitors, up from 580,000 in 2010, Ungaro and Amalfitano said.)

A former chief of staff for L.A. Councilman Joe Buscaino, whose district includes San Pedro, Liu said his former boss ran for office in 2011 on a commitment to reinvigorate the area.

Buscaino, a former cop, has a long history with the fish market, having worked there as a cook when he was a teenager. His father was a commercial fisherman in the late 1970s and ‘80s when, the councilman says, Ports O’ Call was really thriving.

“We would watch Dad come in off the boat and then would get dinner and ice cream,” Buscaino said.

But he and others said that as the years have passed, the waterfront area has become run-down. Leases on developments like Ports O’ Call are capped at 50 years, and that can deter businesses that want a much longer commitment.

A bill now in the state Legislature would allow for a 25-year option to extend the leases.

Wayne Ratkovich, one of the project’s developers, said Amalfitano and his business will be the property’s first tenant.

“It’s taken some time for the port to get moving on this,” Ratkovich said. “But recently they’ve responded very well. We’ve been searching for someone to negotiate with, and we found it in Doane.”

Amalfitano said he thinks a change needs to happen. But if the business needs to move in the interim, he needs to be able to prepare, he said. In the early 1980s, when his staff was building the present-day fish market, they ran the business out of a retrofitted 18-wheeler.

Now under the direction of Ungaro, who is the establishment’s director of strategic marketing, the San Pedro Fish Market is looking for new sources of revenue, including a frozen version of its shrimp tray, which is sold in Sam’s Club stores and several supermarkets nationwide.

Still, the restaurant remains the family’s main income source, and Ungaro says they are embracing whatever the future holds.

“Either you move forward and transform yourself, or you will fall apart, " he said.