FOOD AND DRINK
Must Consume: Clam Pizza Is a Real Thing You Should Try in New York
A specialty of New York, New England and nearby locales, clam pizza can be soggy, salty and even a little gritty – but the best versions sublimely combine the gifts of land and sea
The noise level is rising at Pizzeria Sirenetta on a bustling Friday night, but there’s one English-accented voice booming above them all, and it belongs to a middle-aged man in a black baseball cap.
When I place my order with the bartender, the loud Englishman in New York pauses his conversation with a blond woman in a dress and swivels in my direction.
“Clam pizza?” he inquires, getting quite near my face as he shouts with the mock-disdainful scorn of a Charles Dickens villain in a school play. “Is that a New Jersey thing? Are you from New Jersey?”
After calmly noting that we are in fact in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and that I am a Canadian, I explain that pizza topped with bivalves is a New York thing. Well, New York and beyond. Clam pizza is found in coastal pockets all over the northeastern United States, and it wasn’t invented in either New York or New Jersey – the honour in fact goes to Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, some 130 kilometres (80 miles) away in New Haven, Connecticut. There, you can still order a pizza with shower of clams atop the city’s signature thin and chewy crust.
A pizza topped with clams can be a tough sell: The dough can be little soggy with clam brine. You’ll occasionally encounter (and have to spit out) tiny pieces of grit and shell. And ordering a clam pizza entails missing the opportunity to stick with a more conventionally topped pie, which is more likely to be a sure thing with the rest of your table.
But if you love both seafood and pizza, you owe it to yourself to emerge from your shell and combine them at least once. Typically paired with cream, lemon and garlic, the mercenaria mercenaria, or northern quahog clam, makes as lovely a pizza topping as your more familiar sausage or mushroom – equally delicious, if more subtle, and delightful with a glass of white wine or citrusy wheat beer. I spent much of a recent trip to New York sampling from among widely recommended clam pies (I was especially thankful for the guidance of this post from Grub Street). Here’s what I thought, fellow clam fanatics.
Located in Little Italy but not touristy, Pasquale Jones makes its greeting with gentle 1970s soul music, the warm glow of candlelight, butterscotch leather semi-circle banquettes and a no-tipping policy. If dining solo, the bar makes a fine perch for feasting your eyes on the twin wood-burning pizza ovens. Beautiful in pale, curved stone, they look like something the Skywalkers might own – if there were pizza on Tatooine. As for the pizza here on Earth: The littleneck clams on Pasquale Jones's $27 pie are chewy and substantial, and there’s a heavy helping of them. The crust is blackened, bubbly and stretchy: This is an Italian-style as opposed to a New York-style pizza, no question. The cream, lemons and parsley toppings harmonize nicely with the clams. The portion is generous for one person, and pairs nicely with a glass of fiano di avellino – a boldly acidic and interesting kind of wine for an Italian white.
Rating: Three slices (out of four)
[Bonus: Watch this video of a Pasquale Jones clam pie under construction!]
187 Mulberry St., no phone
Courtesy Pasquale Jones
This is Little Italy in a more familiar guise: Lombardi’s is the sort of touristy eatery that covers its walls with photos and newspaper clippings extolling its historic importance. Lombardi’s pride centres on its (apparently plausible) claim to have been America’s first pizza place, having opened in 1905. Lombardi’s wouldn’t disappoint a foreigner looking for a picture-perfect American pizzeria, and that seems to be who eats here. The tables sport white-and-red checkerboard tablecloths; the bartender is an earthy but friendly character who offers cold glasses of beer to help lubricate the inevitable wait for a table; the music pulsing from discreetly mounted speakers is likely to be Sinatra, or at least something on theme.
Lombardi’s pizza is beloved of plenty of people who know their stuff, but is the “famous clam pie” the right choice? The clams are big and flabby and not especially flavourful, and they take some jaw work to break down, like nicotine gum or a stubborn piece of prosciutto fat. Still with me? The good news is that Lombardi’s clam pie tastes good – like a firm disc of garlic bread spritzed with lemon. For $36 this 14-inch pie is enough of a feed for two, and do pair it with a salad or something to break up the monotony of mastication.
Rating: Two slices
32 Spring St., 212-941-7994
This hopping little Upper West Side bar and pizzeria, where the wall screams LA VITA È BELLA, is affiliated with the seafood-focused Mermaid Inn next door (“sirenetta” means mermaid in Italian). So the clam pie seems like the appropriate choice. Yet during our visit, the bartender recommended the the fennel sausage to every new diner who sat at the bar, with the self-fulfilling observation that it’s Sirenetta’s most popular pie. Too bad, because the clam-covered edition – which emerges from the kitchen faster than a riptide – is quite tasty. The bivalves are chewy but not overly so this time, and they share space atop the thin crust with a hint of spice, slightly char-kissed cream, and green blobs of herbs that give the pizza a Mediterranean freshness. Overall, this isn’t quite Italian pizza and it certainly isn’t New York – it might be pizza as they would make it in the south of France. But stick to Italian for the wine pairing – say, a crisp vermentino.
Rating: Three slices
568 Amsterdam Ave., 212-799-7401
You can choose from among three different Motorino locations in New York and four in Asia; I opted for the small Upper West Side one, at the tail end of lunch, when locals were bringing in kids for an after-school treat of margherita pie. The clam pizza – a terrific deal at $19 (even better is the lunch special: $15 with salad included) – was a suitable diameter for one hungry human. The waiter firmly pushed a red wine pairing, which seemed wrong – and was.
Now, about that pizza. For its part, it was salty and soggy and absolutely delicious. All the other pizzeria owners in New York should head to the nearest Motorino and sink their front teeth into a soft, non-chewy clam to see how satisfying it can be. They should really meditate on a blob of fior di latte, and note how it makes a more suitable accompaniment to clams than the more traditional dollops of heavy cream. Rival pizza makers should mimic, if they can, a crust that is substantial but not a chore to work between the jaws. And the hint of smoke in the dough – well, just enjoy that. Do you dip that last piece of crust into the pool of moisture left behind on the plate, so you can taste the subtle flavours of whey and clam brine one more time? Yes you do.
Rating: Four slices
Appendix: Where to clam it up in Staten Island
Some believe that if you truly want to experience New York’s best pizza – clam or not – you have to take a little nautical adventure to a semi-forgotten island: Staten Island! Calling the city’s least-visited borough a “pizza Mecca,” Eater gives local spot Denino’s the honour of serving the best clam pizza in New York. Meanwhile, Grub Street (New York Magazine’s food site) reserves that distinction for Reggiano’s Brick Oven Pizza, located in the Tottenville section of Staten Island.
All I know is that the next time I visit New York, I’m buying a ferry ticket.