Randazzo’s Clam Bar is not only one of the city’s best Italian restaurants, it’s one of the city’s best seafood restaurants. It dates to 1916 — an era when the bay was lined with so-called clam shacks – now there’s only one. Randazzo’s began as a Lower East Side fish market that moved to Sheepshead Bay in 1932, eventually establishing an empire that extended to clam bars, seafood restaurants, and fish markets. Run by the fifth generation of the Randazzo family, the restaurant perches on the edge of the bay at 2017 Emmons Avenue, near East 21st Street, a red-neon lobster hoists high in the air above it. But diners don’t make the pilgrimage to Randazzo’s for lobster alone: Clams are as much of the draw.
I sat there recently determined to start my all-clam meal with a bowl of chowder. But which one? Randazzo’s offers two, a white New England type and a red Manhattan rendition ($8 each). Of course, I ordered both.
What is chowder, anyway? The term comes from the French word chaudière, which means cauldron. It refers to any thick soup, principally of seafood, but also occasionally of vegetables, with corn chowder being a common variety. The soup may be thickened with cream or with roux. It supposedly originated among immigrant Breton fisherman, who brought seafood chowders to Newfoundland, and from there the soups traveled to New England. Today, New England chowders are a hallmark of Yankee cooking.
But Manhattan clam chowder stands in distinct contrast. It is bright red, thickened with tomatoes, and showcases clams exclusively. The sparkling soup is herby and garlicky, and often contains crushed red peppers — making it more powerfully flavored than its creamy New England counterpart. Tomatoes first gained popularity in New York City in the mid-19th century, just as immigrants arrived from Italy.
Manhattan clam chowder, inspired by certain Italian seafood soups, may have arisen in emulation of the cream-based chowder, but adapted to Southern Italian tastes. Other theories posit an origin in Rhode Island among the Portuguese. The red soup, which still enjoys its greatest popularity in Brooklyn rather than Manhattan (perhaps you’ll be entertained to know that James Beard called Manhattan clam chowder “horrendous”), was known as Coney Island clam chowder in the 1890s. It was allegedly first served at Delmonico, Manhattan’s most famous restaurant of the time (and one soon to reopen).
The white clam chowder should by rights be inferior at Randazzo’s, since red sauce rules the menu in spectacular seafood-and-tomato-sauce pastas. But I found the New England clam chowder holds its own, with a calm demeanor that recalls a placid upstate lake, a whiteness that almost requires sunglasses, and a subtle refined flavor in which the bitterness of clams is defeated by dairy, resulting in a dish as soothing as 45 minutes with your therapist.
On the other hand, the Manhattan clam chowder comes out of the gate like a champion racehorse. The broth is of medium thickness, not quite as dense as the white clam chowder, but thick enough to be entirely opaque. The clams have been ground rather than minced, which adds to the feeling that one is eating a really substantial soup, something on the order of Texas chili. Notes of garlic and a powerful dose of onion are discernible, along with parsley and finely diced potatoes.
I went on to gobble with the help of a friend masses of raw clams and baked clams — the raw ones were stunning, sweet and fresh — then went on to a platter of zuppa di pesce ($35), a Neapolitan classic of clams, shrimp, and stuffed flounder in a sweet tomato sauce with a bit of heat, astonishingly good and a dish we’ll both remember for a long time.
But which clam chowder was best? I’d have to say the Manhattan takes the cake, thicker and less tart than the version found at the Grand Central Oyster Bar, served along with the oyster crackers in cellophane packages on the side, making nearly a full meal. The New England was good, too, but as you sit by the concrete bathtub that is Sheepshead Bay, sea breezes wafting through and fishing boats coming in for the day, nothing quite matches Randazzo’s Manhattan clam chowder.