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An ode to clams: What to know and where to get the best ones on Long Island

A bucket of steamer clams served with cheesy

Oysters get all the glory, and I understand that. I can rhapsodize about this oyster’s salinity, that oyster’s minerality, the depth of the cup, the sheen of the mantle. But give me a clam any day.

Do I sound defensive? I suppose I am. But clam fans define themselves in opposition to oyster lovers the same way Pepsi partisans stick up for their cola, Burger King buffs their Whoppers.

Clams and I go way back. My very first memory is of leaning against a wall in the alley around the corner from the original Nathan’s in Coney Island, sipping a cup of hot clam broth with one clam in it. I was two, at most.

Growing up around New Haven, Connecticut, my childhood was liberally larded with clams. There were the fried whole clams at Jimmies of Savin Rock in West Haven and — drumroll please — the white clam pizza at Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana downtown on Wooster Street, which is very possibly the best food on Planet Earth.

My desire to match these early culinary high points has driven me all over Long Island, where I’ve met limited success. (Fried whole belly clams are rare but gettable, and the only clam pizza that satisfies me is at Brunetti in Westhampton Beach; it’s nothing like Pepe’s, but it’s terrific nevertheless.)

But you don’t have to find great clam dishes to enjoy great clams: There’s nothing better than a dozen just- shucked clams on the half shell. A mediocre restaurant, a bar that barely serves food, a shack that relies entirely on Styrofoam and plastic for serving — chances are the clams on the half shell will be fine, so long as they’re fresh and there’s someone who knows how to shuck. If I have a choice, I’ll opt for middlenecks or topnecks over the littlenecks (too small) or the cherrystones (too big). But if I don’t have a choice, no hard feelings.

Now that it’s summer, we have to deal with the prima donna oysters complaining how they are not at their best. The origin of the old saw “oysters R in season” is that from May through July, the rising temperature of the water causes them to spawn (release sperm or eggs into the water), and the effort leaves them spent, thin and watery.

Clams are bivalve mollusks, too. Don’t they spawn? Turns out they do. Marty Byrnes, the waterways management supervisor for the Town of Islip, explained to me that the water needs to be even warmer to get clams in the mood, but the process has a “much more subtle effect” on the clam than on the oyster. There’s a clam for you: He or she doesn’t make a big deal of it, barely missing a beat before getting on with the business of being plump and delicious.

Oysters are also always going on about how their taste reflects the water they are grown in. Oenophiles use the term “terroir” to describe the effect of soil and climate on a given wine grape’s flavor; ostreaphiles have adapted this term for their own purposes with their clever neologism “merroir.”

Clams don’t have merroir. “They don’t absorb the surrounding environment so much,” Byrnes said. He noted that clams on the North Shore, which feed on slightly larger algae, grow a little quicker than those on the South Shore but, again, “it’s subtle.”

Bill Zeller, who has been selling clams since he was a kid and now runs one of the Island’s biggest wholesalers, Captree Clam in West Babylon, said that he can’t taste the difference between a North Shore and a South Shore clam (although his wife, Maureen, can). Zeller buys clams from 20 to 30 baymen, from Hempstead Harbor to Port Jefferson on the North Shore, and from Baldwin Bay to the Great South Bay on the South Shore. Heaped in huge mesh sacks on the concrete floor of his headquarters, they are distinguishable by two factors: color and size.  

The color, Zeller said “reflects the substrate. In Babylon, the clam beds are muddy — that makes a darker clam. South Oyster Bay is more sandy, and that’s a whiter clam.” Again, he can’t taste the difference between them, but Maureen can.

Size, however, matters. While some clams come in already graded by the baymen, many need to be graded on the premises, and for this Zeller employs two huge machines that work along the same line as a coin changer: Clams come down the line and are sorted by size into chutes with openings of different diameters. Between the two of them, they can handle 30,000 to 40,000 clams per hour, sorting them into 50-pound bags.

All Atlantic hard-shell clams are the same species, Mercenaria mercenaria; the designations littleneck, middleneck, topneck, cherrystone and quahog (aka chowder clam) refer only to size. And size equates to age. It takes two to four years for a clam seed to become a littleneck (about two inches wide); a quahog measuring five inches might be ready for its bar mitzvah.

Soft-shell clams — the ones with thin shells and the “necks” (anatomically, siphons for respiration and feeding) that hang out — are a different species, Mya arenaria, and are variously called long-neck clams, steamers, belly clams, pissers and Ipswich clams, named for the town in Massachusetts where, it is said, someone first got the idea to deep-fry them.

Then there are the exotics making their way into Long Island restaurants and markets. Atlantic razor clams, up to 10 inches long and shaped like straight razors, are occasionally harvested from the East End, while the smaller-than-littleneck Manila clams and New Zealand cockles come from Pacific waters.

I welcome all comers, and hereby extend a special invitation to the tiny Mediterranean vongole veraci that Italians use to make spaghetti with clams. But the bottom line is this: If I had one bivalve to eat for the rest of my life, I’d be perfectly happy with a hard-shell Long Island clam.

GREAT CLAMS ACROSS LONG ISLAND

On Long Island, you’re never far from a freshly shucked clam on the half shell, but as the degree of difficulty increases, quality can fall off. Below are some Long Island restaurants that treat clams right. If I’m recommending them baked, it’s because the kitchen veils (rather than buries) a whole (not chopped) clam in bread crumbs. Recommended fried clams are whole belly (aka Ipswich) clams, not clam strips, which are cut from the protruding foot of the Atlantic surf clam (a very large species processed for soups and sauces) and typically arrive at restaurants already breaded and frozen.

NASSAU

Bigelow's (79 N. Long Beach Rd., Rockville Centre): Bigelow’s, virtually unchanged since its founding in 1938, is basically a U-shaped counter surrounding a fryolator. It’s Long Island’s premier destination for fried Ipswich clams. More info: 516-678-3878, bigelows-rvc.com

D.J.’s Clam Shack (3255 Sunrise Hwy., Wantagh): D.J.’s shines with garlic-steamed littlenecks with jalapeños, made famous by TV star Guy Fieri, and fried Ipswich clams. More info: 516-900-1400, djsclamshack.com

Jeremy's Ale House (239 Woodcleft Ave., Freeport): Jeremy’s may be the most low-key place overlooking Woodcleft Canal, but its clams — raw or steamed — take a back seat to no Nautical Mile restaurant. Order at the bar and be prepared to bus your own table. More info: 516-623-0204, jeremysalehouse.com

Popei's Clam Bar (384 N. Wantagh Ave., Bethpage): The atmosphere is neither maritime nor Italian, but this bustling clam bar has been turning out baked clams (oreganata or casino), pasta with clam sauce (red or white), zuppa di clams (with shells) and ne clams on the half shell for more than three decades. More info: 516-822-9169, popeisbethpage.com

SUFFOLK

Brunetti (103 Main St., Westhampton Beach): Topped with nothing more than fresh-shucked local clams, garlic butter and herbs, the vongole (“clam”) pie is worth the trip to Westhampton Beach. In traffic. More info: 631-288-3003, brunettipizza.com

Buoy One (Multiple locations): Both Buoy Ones in Riverhead (1175 W. Main St.) and Westhampton (62 Montauk Hwy.) function as fish markets and restaurants and are dependable purveyors of clams every which way. More info: buoyone.com

Kingston's Clam Bar (130 Atlantic Ave., West Sayville): Clams on the half shell, steamers and baked clams all taste even better when your table overlooks a gaggle of moored boats and the Great South Bay beyond. More info: 631-589-0888, kingstonsclam.com

Nicky's Clam Bar (99 Maple Ave., Bay Shore): Watch the Fire Island ferries chug back and forth across the bay while you down Ipswich clams, clams on the half shell, baked clams oreganata and casino, and steamers. More info: 631-665-6621, nickysclambar.com

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