How Paluca Trattoria Does Central Coast Flavor with an Authentic Italian Twist
Waves slosh underneath the patio outside of Paluca Trattoria on a calm and cloudy morning. A statue of a fisherman stares back at me as I meander the outside seating area — an area that I’m more familiar with from a TV show than from personal experience. As my eyes glance over a picture of Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Shailene Woodley sitting on the very table I’m standing at, I’m reminded that I’m in one of the most popular attractions from HBO’s hit show, Big Little Lies.
A few minutes later, I’m joined by owners Sal and Ashley Tedesco, and as I follow them inside, I’m reminded again of what movie magic can do. While the outside looks familiar to me as a fan of the show, the interior is a completely different story. Instead of the coffee shop it’s become known for, it’s a charismatic restaurant with cozy seating in a loft area at the top and a line of window tables at the bottom. Guests trickle in at a consistent rate as soon as the doors open, but I had the fortune of sitting down with Sal and hearing all about the genesis of Paluca Trattoria — a favorite stop on our Old Monterey Food Tour.
The Initial Takeover
Those who have lived in the Monterey area for a while may be more familiar with “The Captain’s Gig,” as that was the initial name for the restaurant when it was a popular Fish ‘n’ Chips stop. Sal ran that shop as the General Manager until 2008, when the original owners decided to sell the place to Sal and Ashley. From there, they changed things around to start fitting it to their own personal style.
That change, however, didn’t happen overnight. Sal and Ashley had to put their own flair on things, but with a spot that was so well-known amongst the locals, they had to make sure those locals were ready for all the changes they were about to set in place.
Fortunately, the original menu was straightforward, and with a strong Sicilian background, all Sal needed was a remodel in the kitchen to add more than just deep fryers, and things started falling in place after that.
“I had the patience,” said Sal upon recounting what it was like to take over. “You need the patience to make sure everything’s running well.”
What’s in a Name?
Part of re-branding the business was, of course, renaming it. Sal and Ashley’s two kids, Paolo and Luca, mean the world to them, so they mixed the names “Paul” and “Luke” to create “Paluca.” As for “Trattoria,” those are traditionally family-owned restaurants found all throughout Italy that serve fresh, unassuming, conventional local food, and also encompasses whatever the restaurant does. It could be about the menu of the day, how the menu changes, or anything in between.
“You have to change,” Sal affirms after explaining. “There always has to be something new, especially since we have a lot of local Italian families here. You have to be up to par.”
Being born in Palermo, Sicily, certainly gave Sal the advantage needed in creating authentic Italian food. On top of that, as a son of a commercial fisherman in the Monterey Bay, Sal developed his own love for fishing and enjoys playing around with recipes to create unique menu items.
“My background comes from my authentic Italian family’s style of cooking,” he affirms. “We do eat a lot of strange stuff, and I would like to do some more of it here, but sometimes Sicilians have a bit of a different cuisine that people are more leery of.”
Anybody else curious to see what chopped up octopus on spaghetti tastes like?
Sourcing the Food
Sal and Ashley work with as many local businesses as possible for their food. If it isn’t local, however, it’s at least authentic. If it’s a non-local olive oil, it’s a Sicilian olive oil, and the pasta is imported from Italy. They do their best to get a new fish every weekend and work closely with Charlie from Ocean2Table to get the fish as fresh as possible.
“We do Central Coast flavor with an Italian twist,” Sal says.
Although they serve popular fish like halibut and rock cod, Sal also believes that Monterey Bay has the best salmon in the world. And, with salmon season co-aligning with the busy summer season, that probably doesn’t hurt.
If we’re talking favorites, though, let’s talk about the pasta puttanesca.
“What I like about it is you can add anything you want to it, but the base always stays the same,” says Sal as he offers me up a hefty portion.
The base — capers, black olives, anchovies, garlic, olive oil, chili flake, and marinara sauce — is tasty by itself, but Sal recommends getting creative and adding shrimp, seared fish, or his additional favorite, local sand dabs.
The moment the puttanesca sits in front of me, I can almost taste the marinara just by looking at it. The noodles had a delicate and buttery taste to them, and although I, personally, didn’t try any add-ons, I can still taste the flavors almost a month after trying them. If you’re not a fan of anchovies, though, don’t worry! They melt into the sauce, and you hardly even notice they’re in there.
Appearing in Big Little Lies
Even though Sal and Ashley did a great job transforming the restaurant from The Captain’s Gig to Paluca Trattoria, having a (somewhat main) appearance on one of HBO’s biggest little shows didn’t exactly dampen business, either.
“The approach was so confidential, I never even knew what was going on,” says Sal. “I just sort of said yes before I knew who was in it or what it was about or anything.”
Eight months went by, and just when they thought they’d been forgotten or that the whole thing was a joke, suddenly quite a few “megastars” set up on the dock outside, and it came as quite a shock once they found out what was really going on.
“That show has done so much for the peninsula,” Sal raves. “Every day, I get — look, even now there are people coming to take pictures with the table.”
I look outside and, sure enough, a group of fangirls stands next to the table, taking selfies with the framed photo of the screenshots from the show behind them. If the lunch shift is relatively slow, Sal will also take the time to reset the table every so often to make it look the way it did in the show, just to give their customers that much of an extra memory.
The Wharf Throughout the Years
Although Big Little Lies has certainly helped boost Monterey’s economy, Sal has seen a lot of changes over his time growing up and working on the wharf. Nowadays, there are more businesses as opposed to the fish markets that made Monterey famous in the first place.
“This area is unique, charming, clean, and filled with great people visiting from all over the world,” he gushes.
The sightseeing in the area isn’t anything to complain about, either. Monterey may be the whale watching capital of the world, but having a restaurant with a front-row view of the ocean lets Sal and his guests see whales almost daily. Apart from the sights and great food, the ambiance in general is something that brings people back time and again. This is the type of place that treats guests like family, and it can easily feel like you’re hanging out at home with your friends.
“It’s a great spot regardless of anything. You can just sit on the dock on a nice day with a bottle of Prosecco and enjoy the sun and views. You don’t even have to eat to enjoy it here.”
Paluca and the Monterey Bay Food Tours
Monterey Bay Food Tours certainly has a special place in our hearts for our partnership with Paluca Trattoria, as well — they were our first addition!
After owner Casey Aguilar and her husband, Felipe, settled back in the Monterey area, they, too, were drawn to Paluca’s after watching Big Little Lies. Fate shined its light on that day, as Ashley wound up serving them, and the three of them hit it off so well, Casey and Felipe wound up as regulars. From there, once Casey had decided on pursuing the food tour, she discussed the idea with Ashley before anyone, who, in turn, helped build the foundation of what the food tour has become with their willingness to partner.
Our tour guests aren’t mad at their chances to sit at that table, either.
You can check out Paluca’s, as well as the many other stellar partners we’ve accumulated, on our Old Monterey Food Tour.