Restaurateur Dominic Mercurio and his buddy John Madden toss an ice chest into the back of the truck, drive out to Los Banos, and park near the produce garden on their 300-acre orchard known as J.D. Farms. They pick a couple of watermelons, peel them like an orange, and quarter the juicy hunks of red. Sitting on the tailgate with their feet hanging off the end, they bite into the crisp, cool, sweet fruit, letting the juice run everywhere as they spit out the seeds and consider what it means to eat fresh.
“You buy a watermelon in the store, get it home and, with all kinds of anticipation, you cut into the rind only to find a tasteless, pale pink fruit inside,” Mercurio says. “Watermelons aren’t ready all at once, but for most people, ‘harvest’ means picking them all. There is a little pigtail at the end of the vine. When it dries up, I know it’s done taking in the sugar. John and I are watermelon hounds. We grow it so we can have the best.”
Some 16 years ago, Mercurio and Madden purchased 25 acres of prime Los Banos agricultural land that was producing almonds. Mercurio read every book he could find on the nut and quickly doubled the production of his orchard. It seemed so easy that he bought more land, and then more, until his holding totaled 300 acres. J.D. Farms now yields all the fruits and vegetables he serves at Domenico’s on the Wharf and Café Fina restaurants in Monterey.
“I never really understood how big it was — how important it would be to grow and serve fresh, ripe produce,” Mercurio says. “My dad was always a green thumb and had an awesome garden. I took it for granted.
“When we bought this orchard, I started growing tomatoes. I had forgotten what tomatoes are supposed to taste like when picked ripe. Same with zucchini, peppers, eggplant, and watermelon. It’s all about three words: flavor, flavor, flavor. You pick a fresh zucchini, and it has a completely different flavor from one that has been sitting in a cooler for days or weeks. They say to soak bitter, ripe eggplant in salted water, but not if you pick it young and fresh. Only mature eggplants get bitter.”
Mercurio has been working on Fisherman’s Wharf for more than 40 years, and he loves it still. This is not where he makes his living, but where he makes his life. The sights, smells, textures, and colors offer continuity in a life sustained by the sea. Although he has owned Café Fina and operated it daily for 23 years (and Domenico’s for nearly as long), his tenure on the jetty of distinctive and colorful fish houses began earlier.
Mercurio picks his own produce and reels in his own fish, locally and in Alaska, where his brother still fishes. “My brother Sam has been a commercial fisherman for 30 years,” he says. “I did it for 19 years, and my dad for 40 years. Sam is my main connection to sustainable seafood. Alaskan red king crab, sockeye salmon, weathervane scallops, halibut. Between the fish and the produce — plus we make our own pasta and ravioli and, when heirlooms are in season, our own mozzarella — I don’t think there’s any other restaurant that does what we do.
“The practice of sustainable seafood, sustainable produce, and, thus, sustainable business was our way of life way before it was a trend. Quality is the outcome.”