Ron Riccio of Russ & Daughters Is Immune to Fish Stink

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"I know I do smell like a fish when I leave."Photo: Melissa Hom

As we reported earlier, Russ & Daughters Marco Pierre Whites (and, for that matter, our own) favorite place for smoked salmon is finally entering the blogosphere. Ron Riccio has worked the counter there for thirteen years, since before the store started using the Net to ship lox to displaced New Yorkers. We asked him how tastes have evolved over the years and how, exactly, he smells after a day of cutting lox.

Your customer base mustve changed quite a bit in the past twenty years.
Before, it was mostly a Jewish clientele, and now its more mixed. Young people have moved into the neighborhood, and theyre taking over the spots their grandparents were dying to get out of.

Do you find a difference in what those two factions tend to order?
The older clientele tend to like more saltier stuff, like belly lox and schmaltz herring. The younger generation puts less emphasis on salt. Theres an infusion of new products like soy cream cheeses, tofu, scallion, and vegetable that older customers werent accustomed to. But the fish is still the same its still whitefish and salmon and herring. Years ago, there were maybe two types of salmon now theres a variety, smoked eight different ways.

How do you guide people who aren't sure what to get?
Id ask them, Do you like something rich and mild, like the Gasp salmon, or something a little more smoked with a silky texture, like a Scottish, or maybe something a little leaner, like a Norwegian? A lot of times customers come in and say, Give me some lox. The first thing we do is ask, Just to make sure you want lox? Thats the un-smoked salmon its very salty. Fifty percent of the time, they say, Oh, no, I dont want that type.

How do you respond to people who say they don't like fishy fish?
Its a funny thing. Ill give them a taste of a couple things. Generally something thats not too strong, maybe a Norwegian

How many people get the wasabi caviar? Doesnt the wasabi kill the fish taste?
Its become pretty popular now, mostly as an adjunct to something else. Theres a sandwich now on the menu that was named after Heeb magazine. Someone from there dubbed it a great sandwich its whitefish with horseradish, cream cheese, and a dollop to the wasabi roe.

Whats the most caviar anyone has ever bought?
We sent out maybe ten of our largest containers theyre a half-kilo, which is maybe a little over a pound for something in Texas. I think it was a political event.

Do you deliver to celebs in L.A. who miss New York food? How do you make sure its fresh?
Robert Evans, Norman Lear someone just sent a package to Al Pacino as a gift. We have insulated boxes and ice gels. We ship by FedEx, next-day priority, so if we got a call at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, by 9:30 Thursday morning theyll have their package.

What New York celebs stop in?
Harvey Keitel on a fairly regular basis; hes very friendly. I believe he tends to like Scottish salmon and certain herrings. Oliver Sacks is a big fan.

What do people buy more of, bagels or bialys? And what makes your bagels so special?
Its maybe about four-to-one bagels-to-bialys. We get the bialys from Kossar's. We found a purveyor who makes bagels specifically for us. We like them not as puffy as youll find in some other places. We like to keep it firmer, smaller, and not as doughy.

What about bagel scooping? Do you mind doing that?
Its not a big deal. If thats the most we have to do to accommodate a customer, its not too bad.

Are there requests that get on your nerves?
I used to hear There! There! Cut it there! a lot more.

Is the cost of fish going up? Whats been the biggest increase?
Everythings been going up quite a bit. Wild salmon has certainly gone up a lot theres a dearth of wild salmon going around.

Do you smell like fish at the end of the day?
I know I do smell like a fish when I leave, but, to be honest with you, I dont even notice it anymore. Even when I come into the store, I dont even notice a different aroma from outside, unless Ive been on vacation for a while. I bike to work, so I dont have to sit in the subway and worry about someone sitting next to me thinking, This poor homeless guy