The maritime areas of New York City, Long Island, and the Jersey Shore have long been the site of clam bars strung along the shore like beads on a necklace. While the number has diminished over the decades, a few — like Sheepshead Bay’s sainted Randazzo’s — persist. These places often began with a limited menu of raw and cooked mollusks that also included oysters and conch, but have expanded their menus to feature a broad range of mainly Italian seafood dishes over the years.
The core of the menu features clams of two varieties: Hardshell clams, or quahogs, are divided by size, with the smallest designated littlenecks, followed by topnecks and cherrystones. Chowder clams are the generic term to refer to the largest specimens, which are chopped and used in stews. Softshell clams are also common — known to generations of Brooklyn children as piss clams because of their ability to squirt skyward when tromped on at the beach — which are used for fried or steamer clams.
One of the clam bars that has become an empire unto itself is Lenny’s Clam Bar at 161-03 Cross Bay Boulevard, near 161st Avenue, in Howard Beach, Queens. It was founded in 1974 by the DeCandia family, who immigrated from Bari in the 1950s, the capital of the heel of the Italian boot, Apulia.
The entrance is a grand portico; on the right lies a wall of photos commemorating its generations of fans — including Frank Sinatra, Alec Baldwin (who left a receipt, but refused to have his picture taken), and Andre the Giant. Stars on TV cop shows are the most prevalent.
Pass the greeter’s desk, sits a glass monstrance with the figures of Catholic saints inside, just before the giant dining room with picture windows that look out on Cross Bay Boulevard rather than over Shellbank Basin, the bathtub-like body of water upon which the restaurant sits. An open kitchen is visible on a balcony a few steps up from the dining room. Banquet rooms radiate from the main dining room.
Battle of the baked clams
First things first: Lenny’s offers two types of baked hardshell clams, a favorite of the city’s old-fashioned Italian American restaurants. The typical presentation involves heaping a clam on its half-shell with bread crumbs and Pecorino Romano. If the bivalves have been carefully shucked so that the juices are preserved, these soak the stuffing, which is also also flavored with garlic and oregano. The other preparation is clams casino, invented around 1900 in Providence, Rhode Island according to a history. In it, the stuffing features bacon and bell peppers in addition to bread crumbs. Naturally, my guest and I had to stage a battle of the baked clams.
Six to an order ($11), the regular baked clams were delicate littlenecks, briny, with a bitter edge and slightly cheesy, oozing a fair amount of clam broth in the bottom of the plate to be soaked up with the sesame-seeded bread provided. The clams casino ($19) came eight to an order and deployed top neck clams, a bit bigger than the littlenecks, and chewier, too. Nevertheless, the more aggressive smoky and sweet flavor provided by the bacon and variegated peppers of red and green carried the day, and the greater quantity of bread crumbs necessitated by the larger mollusks, made the dish seem more like a full course than a light snack. Order the clams casino if you want only one form of baked clams.
The rest of the stuff
Past the clams, the lobster bisque ($12.95) was spectacular, orange as a just-fired brick, dotted with black pepper and pieces of lobster. Thick without being gummy or pasty, it was one of the highlights of the meal. The seafood salad ($26), on the other hand, turned out to be awful. It was long on squid, but short on shrimp and conch — the latter ingredient being the one we most craved. The salad was large, but someone had forgotten to season it with the usual mind-boggling amounts of garlic and adequate amounts of salt, and the thing tasted super-bland.
Lenny’s returned to form with plate of fried calamari in the style of Calabria ($20), tossed with incendiary red cherry peppers and tossed with a lemony dressing. You know how when you get near the bottom of the usual fried squid bowl, you’re tired of it? When this combination of flavors was so compelling we excavated frantically, and ate every shard of chile, too, between gulps of draft Peroni beer.
The final savory course was a spectacular shrimp scampi ($27), with the shrimp tossed across a hillock of rice soaked in a buttery garlic-lemon sauce that tinted the whole plate yellow. While maybe the shrimp could have been bigger, who cares when a dish is this good?
We finished up with cannoli heavy on the chocolate chips, devoid of candied fruit, and with a light ricotta filling maybe a little sweeter than tradition. Then, believe it or not, we made a compulsory stop at New Park Pizza just down the street, one of the city’s finest pizza parlors, even though we were already as full as can be.