The first clam lovers in New York City were Algonquin Indians, who carved the shells into beads for currency called wampum, which the Dutch settlers — who arrived around 1609 — sometimes accepted as payment for goods. Of course, the Indians ate the clams first, either raw or by digging a pit, lining it with rocks, putting coals on top of the rocks, seaweed on top of the coals, and then throwing clams on top of the seaweed and burying them. We’re pretty sure the shellfish steamed up sweet and tender.
A favorite clamming spot for both the Dutch and the Indians was Gowanee Creek — now called the Gowanus Canal. The Dutch and Indians were later joined by the English, who substituted the clams in recipes that had originally called for mussels and cockles back home. It was probably in the 17th century that clam chowder was invented, though some say this soup had a French origin, via Breton immigrants to Canada’s Atlantic seaboard.
The city’s love of clams persisted throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. By 1950, the inlet called Sheepshead Bay was lined with at least 10 clam shacks, many on stilts, serving clams in dozens of recipes from Dutch, French, English, and Italian sources. Still, raw clams persisted as a favorite method of consumption. As with raw oysters, raw clams are said to have aphrodisiacal powers, and there was a time when every neighborhood fish market in the city had a raw bar pushed onto the sidewalk, where young men on their way to their dates were often seen feverishly scarfing raw shellfish.
And today the clam remains a city favorite, and an important component of the New York State economy. Around sunrise, all along the Long Island shore you can still see tongers in hip waders extracting clams from the shallow and weedy waters. While oysters may have more glamour, clams are far more versatile, with their chewiness, briny flavor, and slightly bitter edge.
For clam aficionados, here’s a guide where to find some of the best clams in town, organized by dish.
Nothing tastes fresher than a newly opened clam, often at a cost one half of what you pay for raw oysters. In Bay Ridge, Leo’s Casa Calamari has Brooklyn’s best clam service, offered with plenty of extra horseradish, with Roberta’s in Bushwick running a close second. Both places serve Littlenecks, the smallest, sweetest, and best clams to eat raw. Believe it or not, Nathan’s Famous in Coney Island plates a good raw clam appetizer, and so does Ed’s LobsterBar in the new Gansevoort Market. As you might expect from the name, new-wave clam bar Littleneck offers exemplary clams — but though the restaurant is practically on the lip of the Gowanus Canal, that waterway is not where the shellfish are sourced anymore.
Also known as baked clams and often from an Italian recipe, these can be Littlenecks or Cherrystones (the next size up). The trick is to make the stuffing bland enough that the flavor shines through. Any old-guard Brooklyn or Bronx Italian restaurant has them, including the wonderful Venice (founded 1950) near St. Mary’s Park in the Bronx, and Frost and Bamonte’s, both in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Lobster House Joe’s in Dongan Hills, Staten Island, does a very nice job with a light and pale breading, and, speaking of lobster joints, so does Nick’s Lobster (a real New England lobster dock) at the maritime end of Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn.
Clams casino is a gussied-up variation on stuffed clams, supposedly invented in Narragansett, Rhode Island, at a night club called the Little Casino in 1917. The recipe varies, but it usually adds garlic, butter, chopped green peppers, and a small strip of bacon to the breading. Bacon makes everything better, doesn’t it? El Quijote in the Chelsea Hotel has a nice and inexpensive version, and so does City Crab & Seafood Co. on Park Avenue South. They’re also featured at Gallagher’s Steakhouse in Midtown and Lenny’s Clam Bar in Howard Beach, Queens. Macelleria, the long-running Italian steakhouse in the Meatpacking District, has them, too.
At Umberto’s Clam House — famous in mob lore at the restaurant where Joey Gallo was rubbed out in 1972 — you can get crisp fried clams on a platter with french fries and slaw, while Littleneck serves them Connecticut-style on a hot dog roll with tartar sauce. At the Sea Witch Tavern, in the Greenwood Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, you can get an overstuffed round bun of fried clams and tartar sauce. Once you get used to the oddball shape, you’ll pronounce it one of the best clam rolls in town. Café Cluny offers a so-called Long Island clam roll with an intriguing green tartar sauce, but only at lunch, while Mary’s Fish Camp dresses its lunchtime clam roll with a very French celery root remoulade.
There are two types of clam pizza — the most popular form features a plethora of big tough clams (sometimes called "chowder clams") minced on the pie, while the other places smaller, tenderer clams in their shells right on the crust; these shells open as the pie bakes. As the theory goes, they spill their broth right on the pie to good effect, but pulling shells off a pie is a little disconcerting. While the clam pie is sometimes said to have been invented (or at least perfected) at Pepe’s in New Haven, Connecticut, an early evocation has long existed at our own Lombardi’s — the nation’s first pizza parlor, founded 1905. The best clam pies are found in Staten Island, at Denino’s Pizzeria in Port Richmond, and at Lee’s Tavern in Dongan Hills. The best pie in Manhattan is to be had at Pizzetteria Brunetti, a branch of a pizzeria in Westhampton Beach, Long Island, that boasts a special connection with local clam diggers.
WHITE CLAM CHOWDER
Which came first, the white or the red? Clearly it was so-called New England clam chowder, heavily laced with whole milk or cream, flavored with bacon or fatback, and floating tiny cubes of potato, in addition to minced chowder clams. This soup has been served in New York and throughout New England since the 17th century. It’s just the right thing for a lunch in the depth of winter. Grand Central’s Oyster Bar has one of the best — and cheapest, too, it turns out (you should order it at the snaking lunch counter, and get free biscuits and flatbreads alongside), but you can also get chowder of similar density at Joe’s Lobster House in Staten Island and Nick’s Lobster in Brooklyn. Interestingly, original New England clam chowders were apparently thinner than the opulent ones served today, and King’s Clam Bar in Prospect Heights serves just that kind of weaker chowder.
RED CLAM CHOWDER
Clam chowders based on tomatoes are barely 100 years old and probably of Italian origin. It’s interesting to note that, in the middle of the last century, the red chowder had nearly eclipsed the white one on area menus. You can find a very zesty version at Randazzo’s Clam Bar in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, and a very oily version at Kittery in Carroll Gardens. BLT Fish Shack also sells cups and bowls of an excellent Manhattan clam chowder, and Grand Central’s Oyster Bar produces one (but it can’t compete with the white), while Georgia Diner on Queens Boulevard in Elmhurst does the weirdest version — with lentils added. Another variation is provided by The Mermaid Inn, which offers a "creamy Manhattan clam chowder" that entails elements of both red and white varieties.
CLAM PAN ROAST
There’s really nothing roasted about it: old timer Oyster Bar (1913) at Grand Central Station (which, as Mimi Sheraton pointed out, didn’t assume its current seafood-only incarnation until 1974) is one of the few places that make pan roasts, which are thick soups concocted in a steaming contraption, to which a strange collection of ingredients including chili sauce and Worcestershire are added to a creamy broth. The whole thing is ladled over a slice of toast in a shallow bowl, with a heap of whole clams heavily sprinkled with paprika placed in the middle. Strange and strangely delicious!
ZUPPA DI CLAMS
Though the name might remind you of "soup," this Sicilian specialty is more of a tomato-laced clam stew with the shells left in, forcing you to fish out the bivavles and de-shell them yourself. The benefit? The stewing liquid is goosed up with plenty of clam juice; you can’t find a clammier tasting dish in town. Get it at Colandrea New Corner in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, or Grotta Azzurra on Mulberry Street in Little Italy, or indeed at nearly any old-guard red-sauced Italian restaurant in town. For an interesting spin on this dish, also featuring potatoes in addition to clams and all the better for it, check out Roberto’s in the Belmont section of the Bronx. Another place famous for its zuppa is Park Side Restaurant in Corona, Queens, and after you’ve tried it, propel through the park and get yourself a frozen treat at the Lemon Ice King of Corona.
OTHER CLAM SOUPS
Clams are readily adaptable to soups, including ones that are much lighter and more refreshing than those described above. Though this incredibly delicate and beautiful clam soup from Tribeca Shanghai restaurant China Blue is currently off the menu, maybe they’ll bring it back if you ask for it. In Sunset Park’s Chinatown, Lucky Zhang’s offers a clam soup with noodles in a light broth, while Great NY Noodletown back in Manhattan pours out an even lighter watercress and clam soup.
CLAMS WITH BLACK BEAN SAUCE
The most famous of the southern Chinese dishes featuring the bivalve is clams with black bean sauce, a staple of the dim sum menu. Often, it comes not carted, but served up at a station on the side of the dining room with great panache. Jing Fong on Elizabeth Street does this (seating 1,600, it’s the city’s largest restaurant), and so does Bamboo Garden in Sunset Park, which produces the best version we’ve ever tasted, and generous, too.
The Japanese also treat our native hardshell clams with more delicacy than the European recipes. Witness the clams steamed in sake at newcomer Beronberon; these are not small clams, either, but big rubbery ones, and the cooks seem to be highlighting their chewy nature. On an odder note, Flushing’s Mogu Sushi bakes similar size clams with yellow cheese, which is startling but surprisingly good. Back in Koreatown, Ichi Umi offers baked clams without the cheese, though they’re not always available.
CLAMS IN GREEN SAUCE
Spaniards relish their clams ganged up with other seafood in paellas, or by themselves awash in a green sauce that is mainly parsley and garlic. Village old-timer Sevilla does a great job with this recipe, and so does Café Riazor, where a similar dish is available as an appetizer. Across the Iberian Peninsula in Portugal, clams are often cooked with shrimp and chorizo in a thick stew, served with or without rice, as at Iberia Peninsula in Newark, New Jersey. Another Portuguese presentation places clams in a simple garlic sauce; find it at Seabra’s Marisqueira, a wonderful joint just off the main drag specializing in seafood. (Hint: sit in the blue-tiled front barroom, rather than the stuffy rear dining room.)
LINGUINE WITH CLAM SAUCE
Red or white? Most old-fashioned Italian places offer both, the white mainly clams laced with garlic in a concentrated clam broth, the red awash with a tomato sauce much lighter than expected, so the briny taste of the bivalves remains star of the show. The best red is at Michael’s in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, and the best white at Don Peppe’s in Ozone Park, Queens.
A FEW ODDITIES
In the West Village, bivalve-themed The Clam offers a clam dip with potato chips, which might remind you of a suburban cocktail party, circa 1965. The michelada at Mission Cantina features the clam juice-tomato cocktail called Clamato in the formula, and many Latin-American lunch counters, such as La Cabana in Corona, Queens, offer a mixed-on-the-premises clam-and-tomato juice. Off the Hook in Astoria, Queens, presents pots of steamed softshell clams, known as "steamers," and so does London Lennie’s in Woodhaven, Queens.
Where to Find Clams
Beron Beron, 164 1st Ave, Manhattan, (212) 477-1005
BLT Fish Shack, 21 West 17th St, Manhattan, (212) 691-8888
Café Cluny, 284 West 12th St, Manhattan, (212) 255-6900
China Blue, 135 Watts St, Manhattan, (212) 431-0111
City Crab & Seafood Co., 235 Park Ave S, Manhattan, (212) 529-3800
Clam, 420 Hudson St, Manhattan, (212) 242-7420
Ed’s Lobster Bar, Gansevoort Market, 52 Gansevoort St, Manhattan, (212) 242-1701
El Quijote, Chelsea Hotel, 226 West 23rd St, Manhattan, (212) 929-1855
Gallagher’s Steakhouse, 228 West 52nd St, Manhattan, (212) 586-5000
Great NY Noodletown, 28 Bowery, Manhattan, (212) 349-0923
Grotta Azzurra, 177 Mulberry St, Manhattan, (212) 925-8775
Ichi Umi, 6 East 32nd St, Manhattan, (212) 725-1333
Jing Fong, 20 Elizabeth St, Manhattan, (212) 964-5256
Lombardi’s Pizza, 32 Spring St, Manhattan, (212) 941-7994
Macellaria, 48 Gansevoort St, Manhattan, (212) 741-2555
Mary’s Fish Camp, 64 Charles St, Manhattan, (646) 486-2185
Mission Cantina, 172 Orchard St, Manhattan, (212) 254-2233
Oyster Bar at Grand Central Terminal, 89 East 42nd St, Manhattan, (212) 490-6650
Pizzetteria Brunetti, 626 Hudson St, Manhattan, (212) 255-5699
Sevilla, 62 Charles St, Manhattan, (212) 929-3189
Umberto’s Clam House, 132 Mulberry St, Manhattan, (212) 431-7545
Bamonte’s, 32 Withers St, Brooklyn, (718) 384-8831
Bamboo Garden, (6409 8th Ave, Brooklyn, (718) 238-1122
Colandrea New Corner, 7201 8th Ave, Brooklyn, (718) 833-0800
Frost, 193 Frost St, Brooklyn, (718) 389-3347
King’s Clam Bar, 622 Washington Ave, Brooklyn, (718) 483-9663
Kittery, 305 Smith St, Brooklyn, (718) 643-3293
Leo’s Casa Calamari, 8602 3rd Ave, Brooklyn, (718) 921-1900
Littleneck, 288 3rd Ave, Brooklyn, (718) 522-1921
Lucky Zhang’s, 5622 8th Ave, Brooklyn, (718) 439-3366
Mermaid Inn, 568 Amsterdam Ave, Manhattan, (212) 799-7400
Michael’s, 2929 Ave R, Brooklyn, (718) 998-7851
Nathan’s Famous, 1310 Surf Ave, Brooklyn, (800) 628-4267
Nick’s Lobster, 2777 Flatbush Ave, Brooklyn, (718) 253-7117
Randazzo’s Clam Bar, 2017 Emmons Ave, Brooklyn, (718) 615-0010
Roberta’s, 261 Moore St, Brooklyn, (718) 417-1118
Sea Witch Tavern, 703 5th Ave, Brooklyn, (347) 227-7166
Don Peppe’s, 135-58 Lefferts Blvd, Queens, (718) 845-7587
Georgia Diner, 86-55 Queens Blvd, Queens, (718) 651-9000
La Cabana, 39-17 103rd St, Queens, (718) 898-7593
Lemon Ice King of Corona, 52-02 108th Street, Queens, (718) 699-5133
Lenny’s Clam Bar, 161-03 Cross Bay Blvd, Queens, (718) 845-5100
London Lennie’s, 63-88 Woodhaven Blvd, Queens, (718) 894-8084
Mogu Sushi, 133-22 39th Ave, Queens, (718) 886-2618
Off the Hook, 2808 34th St, Queens, (718) 721-2112
Park Side Restaurant, 107-01 Corona Ave, Queens, (718) 271-9321
Denino’s Pizzeria & Tavern, 524 Port Richmond Ave, Staten Island, (718) 442-9401
Joe’s Lobster House, 1898 Hylan Blvd, Staten Island, (718) 667-0003
Lee’s Tavern, 60 Hancock St Staten Island, (718) 667-9749
Roberto’s, 603 Crescent Ave, Bronx, (718) 733-9503
Venice, 772 East 149th St, Bronx, (718) 585-5164
Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria Napolitana, 163 Wooster St, New Haven, CT, (203) 865-7602
Iberia Peninsula, 63-69 Ferry St, Newark, NJ, (973) 344-5611
Seabra’s Marisquiera, 87 Madison St, Newark, NY, (973) 465-1250