Henry Dewey, co-owner of Penn Avenue Fish Co. in the Strip District, has a hard time convincing people to buy tuna belly. That’s a real head-scratcher for me. Maybe that’s because when you say “tuna belly” most folks think of (raw) sushi.
Time to re-boot. Sure, tuna belly is great in sushi, but it makes for delicious eating on the plate as a fillet.
The cut, which is also called toro or fatty tuna, has excellent flavor. It is so marbled with fat it is pinkish, making it lighter in color than the dark tuna steaks we are used to seeing. Tuna belly has a distinct texture, too. The filet is thin and is divided into finger-like sections. It must be cooked quickly to preserve the subtle flavor and tender meat, a boon to cooks with limited time in the kitchen.
Tuna belly isn’t easy to find, especially in Pittsburgh. Wholey’s Fish Market does not break down whole tuna. Market District stores do not, and Whole Foods Market does not.
Penn Avenue Fish Co. is one of the few fishmongers in the East coast region to butcher whole tuna. Mr. Dewey and his crew cut No. 1 sushi-grade yellowfin tuna to the tune of two to three fish a week depending on the size. Tuna weight can run anywhere from 60- to torpedo-size 400 pounds. The fish company goes through 200 to 400 plus pounds of yellowfin tuna a week. In addition to the retail counter, sushi bar and eatery in the Strip store, Penn Avenue Fish services its Downtown sushi bar and restaurant at 308 Forbes Ave.
“People confuse tuna species,” says Mr. Dewey. “Bluefin tuna are huge, weighing from 500 to 800 pounds, and all of their meat is best eaten raw, which is why it is prized for sushi. Japan is a huge market for bluefin. Yellowfin tuna is a different species. It’s smaller, and even though its flesh also makes good sushi, it cooks up beautifully.
“We buy No. 1 sushi-grade whole yellowfin,” he continues. “We portion some for sushi, some for steaks and some parts go to our soup kettles. We use everything.” A bonus to butchering the whole fish: the meat left on the skeleton is scraped off and featured in the sushi bar’s Spicy Tuna Roll.
When a fresh tuna comes into the store, it is heaved onto a slab counter adjacent to the retail fish area. Facing customers, one of the fishmongers (Henry or Tim or Kyle) wields a huge, heavy knife and begins to quarter the beast. The belly already is split where it was gutted, so with a cut, a whack and a slice, the (half) belly is free. Take a minute to watch. It’s great show biz, though you could get splashed.
The belly strip is about the size and shape of a slab of baby back pork ribs. It might weigh between one and 1 1/2 pounds, and it will sell for about $25 a pound. A cross section is so marbled, it resembles Kobe beef.
How to cook tuna belly? Mr. Dewey likes to marinate the fillet in extra-virgin olive oil, white wine, garlic and herbs, then grill it for barely a few minutes. I like a gentler method -- a quick saute in bubbling butter and finished with fresh herbs.
If you want to buy, call in your order ahead. And when you pick up, check out the tattoo on Mr. Dewey’s right forearm. It’s a happy yellowfin tuna.
Just ask. He’ll show you.
1 pound tuna belly fillet, cut into serving sections
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons unsalted butter or to taste
Mixed freshly snipped herbs (chives, parsley, chervil)
Pat the fillet dry with a paper towel. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. In a large frying pan, melt the butter over medium heat. When the butter is heated and the foaming subsides, add the tuna.
Reduce the heat to medium, and cook for 2 minutes. Use a spatula to turn the tuna. Continue to cook another 1 to 2 minutes until slightly brown but with the interior of the fish still pink. Do not over cook.
Plate the fish, add the herbs to the hot pan and swirl the mixture. Drizzle fish with herb butter. The ideal piece of cooked tuna will be tan with a pinkish center, and it will be very tender. Pass lemon wedges. Serves 2 or 3.