Family, fish, and freshness

If you measure the freshness of seafood by the distance it must travel from the market to your table, then it will be hard to top Anastasi Seafood. From any seat in this tidy glass-enclosed dining room, ice cases mounded with rows of clear-eyed whole fish, firm-fleshed sides of purple tuna, and bins of glistening gray shellfish are only feet away.

No, you can't get much closer to the action than sitting inside the market itself, but that virtue is also the catch. This casual little eatery is so well disguised by the bustling Italian Market retail life that surrounds it, you might never know it was there, tucked inside, beyond the sidewalk stalls brimming with crabs on Washington Avenue.

The Anastasi name has been a fixture in the South Philadelphia seafood business for much of the 20th century, ever since Thomas Anastasi began selling croakers and bluefish from a pushcart nearly 80 years ago. Subsequent retail stores at Ninth and Montrose, then Ninth and Christian traced the generations of family as the business grew until finally another Thomas Anastasi, five generations later, decided to become a chef.

A move three years ago to the corner of Ninth and Washington made that dream a reality when, flanked by his father, Salvatore, and as many as 16 Anastasi women, Thomas had the chance to put his cooking-school education to good use.

"And that school wasn't cheap," says family matriarch Janet Anastasi, Thomas' grandmother.

The result of this family effort is a genial place that captures the easy Formica-top ambience you might find at a casual seafood market-restaurant down the Shore. The all-female, mostly family, service staff is unpretentious and friendly, very attentive, and well informed. And the prices, while not exactly cheap, are fair for quality products that are best presented in straightforward seaside cooking with Italian accents.

What could be more satisfying than a crisply fried soft-shell crab sandwich for lunch, its little legs poking out of a soft white bun? The creamy seafood risotto might qualify, stuffed as it was with nuggets of lump crabmeat and jumbo shrimp. The restaurant's clams casino was a perfect rendition of the classic, shells stuffed with a light yellow clam stuffing tinged with smoky bacon. Grilled langostinos, singed at the edges with char, come splashed with a garlicky lemon oil that highlights the sweetness of the meat.

And though the shad season recently ended, I can still vividly recall the lush texture and dusky flavor of a thick fillet, glazed in a sheen of caper cream.

The kitchen is most ambitious at night, and some of the more expensive, fussier dishes don't quite work. Sesame-crusted tuna steak was burnt black on one side, as if it had been cooked in a dry pan. Sauteed chunks of monkfish, tossed in a garlic wine sauce, were overwhelmed by briny chunks of olives. The grilled barbecue-glazed shrimp didn't have any of the spice its "Buffalo" moniker might have implied.

Usually, though, Anastasi delivered dishes that hit the spot with unembellished homey satisfaction. Steamed blue crabs were infused with "the works," a combo of Old Bay, garlic and oil that seemed to penetrate to the farthest corners of moist and flaky white meat. A basket of large butterflied shrimp were as deftly fried in their crisp coat of homemade bread crumbs as was the dewy fresh fillet of yellowtail flounder.

The fried crabcakes were excellent in an unspectacular way; their imperial-style mayo filling was more whipped than lumpy, but still rich with deliciously sweet, fresh crab flavor. The same light stuffing blossomed like a mushroom cloud atop a perfectly broiled lobster tail, added for $5 more as a superbly sweet crown of lightly browned crab.

I love a restaurant that uses crabmeat as gratuitously as Anastasi does - such is the good fortune of eating at the purveyor's. Crabmeat is strewn so copiously across the counter, it seems to be used as much for its flaky texture as anything else. You find it slipped between the layers of melted buffalo mozzarella and rounds of grilled tomato; and mingling with garlic, white wine and tomatoes over parchment-baked striped bass. Crabmeat also thickens the rich blush sauces that grace fresh spinach fettuccine, and the rounds of plump homemade raviolis filled with lobster. And, of course, it gives the risotto its jewel-like nuggets of sea sweetness.

This young kitchen is far from perfect. There were times when its attention seemed diverted from some very simple preparations - frying calamari until they were chewy; cooking the giant shrimp cocktail to order, but not cooling them enough in an ice bath.

A more perplexing situation, though, was the dessert tray. Aside from the standard selection of frozen Bindi in-the-fruit sorbets (the cantaloupe was a surprise winner) that were pleasant weekday options, there were numerous delights on the weekend from Isgro Pastries on Christian Street. The miniature strawberry cheesecakes and rich chocolate truffle cake were fine. But as I eagerly reached for the cannoli I learned - gasp! - that it was imported from New York.

The chef tells me that they are superior to the local variety, that their cream filling is not quite as thick as those that can be found down the street. That may be so. But then I put this pastry pretender to the real test, and took a bite of its shell. What would have been an Isgro explosion was but a meager Big Apple crack, the crust dulled no doubt by its long and perilous journey down the turnpike.

It was an ironic lesson to learn from a restaurant that prides itself in giving fresh seafood the shortest journey possible from the market to the table.