Thursday, January 3, 2019

Clam Bellies and Apizza, The Introduction


Here is the memoir of my life leading up to being a chef.
It’s called Clam Bellies and Apizza.
It is a collection of essays that tell my story of how I became this lusty food loving chef
you all know and love. These are the stories of the foods I encountered in my young life;
foods I ate, the food I feared, and the food I eventually grew to love and cook professionally.  

Let me give you a little chronological and geographical background.
I was born in October 1959, and raised in the 1960’s and 70’s in New Haven, Connecticut.
We moved a lot but mostly lived in the lower middle class Fair Haven neighborhood
and the surrounding the eastern ‘burbs.
Memorial Day Parade, Early 1960s, Grand Avenue, Fair Haven

As a young teen when I first really began exploring food I lived with my Dad and his
wife in the blue collar suburb or East Haven.

At 16 when I started driving I spent a lot of time around the farms and lakes north and east
of New Haven and on the Long Island Sound shoreline to the east. We’d load up my
faded sea foam colored ‘69 Catalina tank of a car and head for the beach, or lake or
campsite to party.

That car was very unstylish for the times; it was a four door sedan, with no vinyl roof,
no white walls, plenty of dents. But it could hold 5 or 6 of us easily with its huge bench seat,
and it was so solid you barely noticed it when you clipped a mailbox and swiped a parked car.  
I kept a cigar box stashed under the drivers seat where i kept kept a baggie of
seedy, twiggy weed, EZ Wider rolling papers, a “power hitter” and whatever pills I had
that week; black beauties, Darvon and THC tabs were often on the menu.
The Power Hitter was a perfect tool for cruising around in a car because you never
had to worry about hot ashes falling on your clothes and you could just pass it around the car
while cruising on the backroads without worries losing the joint in the transfer from one person
to another. You just lit the joint and stuck it in the inside part of the cap, screwed the cap on
and squeezed the body of like a cross between a bellows and a squirt bottle.
It forced the smoke out in a strong stream.
Very nice.
The Mighty Power Hitter! Squeeze the smoke out HARD!


We would cruise the shoreline and farm roads every weekend, usually with a bottle of
sweet wine like Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill, Bali Hai or Liebfraumilch, that sweet german
stuff that I loved so much. I was into finding the cool obscure stuff even then.
The girls all preferred Tango, the precursor to drinks like Smirnoff Ice.
Tango was a premixed screwdriver in a bottle that tasted more like TANG than anything else.
Remember TANG? It was marketed as the drink the Astronauts enjoyed while in
orbit and was supposed to be the beverage of the future.
Actually, It was a bit like Red Bull, so maybe they had something there.




I was not quite 18 when I moved out on my own into the heart of downtown New Haven
to the horror of my family and friends who stayed in safe, white East Haven.
I slid in among the students, punk rockers, communists, old school hookers and
pimps, bums and gay people who walked the upper blocks of Chapel street in the late 70’s.


Ron's Place, the Punk club I helped to start up jn 1979 was one of the many places of ill repute on upper Chapel street in the 70's

It made sense then that I would do the East Village and Lower East Side thing for a bit in
1980 following the underground music and art scene i was enmeshed in. Then through the
mid 80’s, I lived in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts. 
I returned to New York in 1988. I worked in the East Village while I lived in the
magical melting pot of Flushing,Queens.
I bounced around the coolest neighborhoods in the Northeast to seek my fortune
in the music world, but by day I found myself working in food; sweating behind
sandwich counters, line cooking the busy lunch shifts and banging out
whatever it took just to stay fed and pay the rent.
All the while, I was always eating, and inadvertently cataloguing flavors in my brain.




For a smallish city, New Haven has a strong food identity of its own.
It is the marketed as “The Gateway to New England” which lends itself to plenty of
Yankee lobster houses and classic “fried or broiled” seafood restaurants, but it’s also
the furthest east of the New York City suburbs and boasts plenty of amazing red sauce
Italian American joints and a growing spattering of Latino store front restaurants.


Wooster street in New Haven, the home of Pepe's and Sally's, the best pizza joints in America.

Now, thanks to social media, New Haven is now finally being recognized as the
American Mecca of Pizza, or ah-Beetz, as it is properly pronounced.
Start with an Ah and end with an invisible T before the Zs. There is no “uh” at the end.
Just Ah-BEETZ. Say it. ah-BEETZ, accent on the BEETZ. Good.
In New Haven you go for ah-BEETZ, you don't get a pizza.
It's a thing, a brand, a legend.
The famous Apizza joints, Pepe’s, Sally’s and The Modern, are all over the food blogosphere
and social media scene, but there many other excellent family run places in the area.
Depalma’s, Tolli’s and Zuppardi’s are a few of the places we hung out at as young teenagers.
Their pizza and subs are better than anything I’ve had outside of the New haven area.
Though they are not on the celebrity sightings map, they also have no waiting lines
and in my day they let us teenagers hang out mid afternoon without spending much money.  

Many afternoons after school, we’d squeeze into a red sparkled booth at Tolli’s in East Haven;
we being Paul Cap, Mark Milazzo, Mitchell Bourbon and Fred Dahlmeyer among others.
We loved to annoy the guests there by playing the heaviest songs we could find on the
jukebox over and over. Songs were a dime each or 3 for a quarter, so for a buck we’d play
12 songs. We often played the same songs twice or more. Among the hardest and noisiest
songs we found on juke boxes at the time were Mississippi Queen, Whole Lotta Love by Zepplin,
Hocus Pocus by Focus and of course Helter Skelter, which was on the jukebox because
it was the B-side to the Beatles sugary pop song Got to Get You Into My Life. Juxtaposition.

We drank multiple Foxon Park sodas, which probably intensified our teenage acne.
If it was around one of our allowance days, we chipped in enough change between us
to share a meatball sub or a small Apizza. The meatball subs were monstrosities,
5-6 big meatballs stuffed into a split loaf of crusty Italian bread buried in toasty, stringy,
caramelized mozzarella with lots of tangy red sauce. We passed that sub around like a
giant spliff, each of us getting two or three big messy bites.
The Mighty Boy Food, a big meatball Sub. 

Oh, did I say sub? Yes, New Haven has a deep sub culture; I don’t mean subculture
like a subversive culture beneath the main stream surface, though that too does exist.
No, mean a Sub-culture, like the culture of Submarine sandwiches, grinders, heroes,
hogies. In new Haven we call them subs. Subs are a way of life.
I got my first real kitchen chops making subs, hundreds of fucking subs.

Before fast food drive through and god-awful gas station food, Subs were the Italian
American workers food. When I was in my early teens, I had to work a few too many
Saturdays on the construction sites my father was managing. Among the many shitty jobs
I had to do, one was to clean up glop and glue and nails and trim that my uncles Art and Vinny,
my father's older brothers who did his sheetrocking and taping, left behind.
The bright side of working on my precious Saturdays other than having a few bucks in my
pocket, was lunch.

Uncle Art did the lunch run for submarine sandwiches at Andy’s Market or the Forbes.
These were two of the best of many long gone old style grocers that sold subs from the
butcher counter in the back of the store. Their subs are legendary. Ask anyone over
50 who worked on the harbor or lived in the Annex, which is the south east end of New Haven.
Both Andy’s and The Forbes’ subs weighed at least a pound each and were wrapped in
foil and then stuck back into the Appicella’s bag that the loaf of bread came in.
The much lamented Andy's on Main Street in "The Annex" made the world's greatest  broccoli rabe sub.

Cold subs of gabbagool, salami, stinky provolone, peppered ham, with lettuce, tomatoes,
onions, hot pepper relish, mayo, oil and vinegar all made my mouth water.
I loved the way the vinegar soaked into the bread. When I was done eating my hands would
be coated with the cheesy smelling olive oil for the rest of the day.

This is where i learned to love broccoli rabe, in a sub.
When rabes were available, you'd see the sign hand written on a frilly white paper plate
taped to the glass window of the butcher's case that read "Broccoli Rape Sub $2.50.
Andy’s Market sausage and broccoli rabe sub was packed with pale green almost melted
rabes, sliced spicy Italian fennel sausage and enough porky, garlicky grease to lubricate a
rollercoaster.

Eating this sub required standing up, leaning forward, legs spread, as you squeezed
each succulent bite. The juices rolled down your wrists and you had to stare down, to
avoid wearing pork grease and olive oil on your clothes and sneakers.

I loved Saturday subs, the worker’s meal And we each got a quart of soda to wash it
down. Eating subs with the older guys made me feel like a man.

I admit I am old enough to have memories of the early generations of Italian Americans
in my world who came from poverty and who ate the good stuff, not just spaghetti and
meatballs and chicken parm. I clearly remember cranky old men with names like
Uncle Goggles, Crippled Toby and Foxy Frank overfilling ashtrays and playing Pinochle
at my Big Nonnie’s kitchen table.
They ate plates of irony souffrite, chewy scungilli salad and garlicky periwinkles.
Periwinkles are those tiny snails that crawl on the wet rocks all over
Long Island Sound. On special occasions my Poppy would bring home an onion bag of
fresh periwinkles that one of his coworkers harvested. Nonnie would put on a covered pot
of water to boil. When the water was rolling she'd dump in the little snails. They would at first
stick and cling to the lid of the pot, but one by one they would release and fall into the
boiling water. When they had all fallen into the water they were cooked, and she'd toss them
with hot olive oil and minced garlic with wedges of lemon.The men would devour them one
at a time with toothpicks as if it was some kind of celebration ritual.
Scungilli salad scared me as a kid, but I love it now!
A Bowl of Free Food! Periwinkles pulled from the rocks at Mansfield grove in East Haven

Being around so many Old World Italians I remember some of the real life changers;
my first bite of silky pig skin braciole speared me like cupid’s arrow,
my initial revulsion of hairy anchovies, the shocked looking little eyes on fried shiners and eggs, the confusing smell of soaking baccala,
the gathering and washing and washing again of wild bitter greens that my uncle gathered in
his t-shirt, and the pukey stench of very old and bitingly sharp provolone dripping oil while
hanging above the deli counter. These were just some of many Italian foods that made an
indelible stamp on me.  


When I describe my love of seafood from Long Island sound I’m not talking about delicate
flounder filet or lobster tails. We’re talking about stinky, assertive things like blue fish,
eels, porgies, stripers, blackfish, and shellfish like oysters, mussels, calamari, blue crabs
and big belly clams. I’m talking about using your teeth to squeegee the delicate meat
from the skinny crawling legs of a lobster and the glassy crunch of sand in the belly of a
piss clam. This is the seafood that true Connecticut coast people identify with.
I feared so many of these creatures as a kid, until one by one, through peer pressure,
or that need to be accepted by the tough older guys, or by just being really stoned and hungry,
that they revealed themselves and their magic to me one daring bite at a time.

When I was a little guy, my parents took me to Jimmie’s at Savin Rock at lot during the
summer. Savin Rock was in West Haven, about two miles from New Haven Harbor.
It was right out of Happy Days, like a mini Coney Island right on the beach with rides,
amusements, a “Laff-in-the-dark” funhouse, hot rods, greasers and of course food.
There were colorful cotton candy and lemon ice stands and of course, Jimmie’s, which
was the gold mine. The original Jimmie’s was a huge open air counter that specialized
in footlong split hot dogs and fried seafood. I bet they served over 1000 guests a night
in peak season. It is there that I had my first fried clam. Long before the lobster roll stole
the stage, Jimmie’s served fried scallops, fried clams and belly clams on buttered split top
hot dog rolls with tartar sauce.
It was here, and later at Chick’s, a beachfront Drive-In joint that recently closed in 2015
after a 65 year run, that I was gradually introduced to the magic of fried shellfish and
ultimately belly clams.
The original Jimmies at Savin Rock
Chick's Drive in, just down the road on the beach. 
The Laff-In-The-Dark scared the shit out of me, and I never went in. I closed when I was 6, to be fair.

What we New Englander’s refer to as Belly Clams are whole fried soft shell,  Ipswich or
Piss clams, the kind that are also used to make proper steamers.
The name piss clams, or Pissers comes from the little spray of sea water that comes up
from the sand where the clam has buried itself. When the tide is low, walk out onto the
mudflats and drop a brick or rock or beer bottle on the packed greenish-black sand where you
may spy a few air bubbles and watch for that little stream of water that squirts up.
That is where the Piss clam is hiding.
Start digging and plan your dinner.
Ipswich, or Pisser Clams

Belly clams are the entire clam, muscle strip and belly attached that are breaded in
cracker meal and deep fried. They are an acquired taste and it took me more than a
few tries to get into them. Entry level fried clams are what is known as clam strips.
This is what most people eat.
They are the slightly chewy, briny muscles from the Ipswich clams, breaded and fried.
They are tasty for sure with a mild ocean flavor. Mostly, they are about the breading though.
A good cracker meal breading could make even boogers delicious, ask Colonel Sanders
about that. The belly clam in contrast is intense. The whole clam, the fleshy sack of a belly
which is attached to the strip is breaded and fried. It’s interior is dark greenish-black like the
color of the mudflats where it lives, and it is strongly flavored, sometimes even a bit sandy.
It is to littlenecks with sea urchin is to lobster tail. This is the intense stuff, the good stuff.
The stuff it takes balls to try but a serious love of food to become addicted to.
I confess, I am an addict.
To this day, whenever I am on the east coast in summer I say fuck the fine dining,
give me a good clam fry.
The Magic of fried calm bellies!

My introduction to fried seafood was indeed at Jimmie’s. My mother and father and i  
were sitting in our two toned Studebaker when I was about 5 years old. I was in the
back with my ketchup doused Hotdog and fries. My father was eating his favorite, a
scallop roll and my mother had the fisherman’s platter with fried filet, clams, scallops,  
oysters, fried and slaw,. The food was served in red checkered paper boxes. I clearly
remember my mother imploring me to try a fried clam that she had speared on the end
of a two pronged flat wooden fork, My mouth was shut like a steel trap. No way I was
letting that into my mouth. The car smelled like low tide. Fuck that, the entire park smelled
like dead fish. The aroma revolted me.
If you have never seen a Studebaker, you miss out. This was a very cool car in its day

My first small step to seafood love eventually came when I was eating the last of the burnt
ends of the fries from the bottom of the pressed paper boat that my mother’s seafood platter
was served in. The entire crumby pile was drowning in ketchup. I inadvertently ate a little
piece of breading that must have fallen off a clam strip. I immediately identified a new flavor.
The slightly metallic perfume of the clam filled my mouth, even over the sweet and sour
ketchup. I was a bit confused because I kind of liked the flavor even though I hated the
smell so much. I went back for another small piece, coated with ketchup. I was being
indoctrinated. In time,  I tried a full clam strip, with ketchup of course. And then, eventually,
I ordered my first actual clam roll. I was nine. My mother was proud.
I was eating “cool” food long before my squeamish little cousins. I had rank.
I still ate it with ketchup, but there was progress.
The Magic of a whole clam belly roll

It would be a couple of years later at Chick’s when I had my first clam belly.
I was about 10 or 11. I was with my mother and her friend Adrienne.
They had their girls night out and sometimes they brought me along to be the “Gentleman”.
I opened the doors for them, etc. I was a man in training I guess. This evening I was sent
into to order the food to be eaten in the car. A Fisherman’s platter with belly clams for my
mother Ro, fried shrimp platter for Adrienne and a clam roll and fries for me. Ro was adamant
that I made sure that she wanted belly clams, not strips on the Fisherman’s platter.  
I guess when I ordered my clam roll I forgot to specify “strips” for me and I got the whole clams
too. The clams were big and golden and crunchy and creamy. My first belly clams were
amazing. The interior color of a few of the bigger ones put me off a bit, and I may have
pulled off and discarded a few of the larger bellies, but I had arrived. There was no turning back.


In addition to the seafood eaters and Southern Italians, my hometown has a dense population
of Puerto Ricans. In my adolescence, through the influence of my Puerto Rican step father
and his circle of friends, I was exposed to the strong aromas and flavors of Latin food; of
culantro and cilantro, achiote, green bananas and pasteles, spicy “Pique” sauce and dishes
of adobo chicken gizzards, freshly made rice and blood sausage, cow feet soup and
boiled wild pigeon soup.

Each flavor smacked me back initially, but relented, eventually coaxing me into a love affair
with their flavor and texture profiles. That love has been a part of my culinary repertoire for
most of my career.
For those of you who claim to dislike cilantro, meet the intense Culantro, the herb you will HATE even more.

When I was about 11, I went to my first Puerto Rican block party with
my stepfather and his family down on Lloyd street in Fair Haven. The street was dark,
shadowed with big poplar and elm trees trees and tall two family houses planted side by
side separated by narrow alleys. On the curb in front of the house was this huge pig roasting
contraption made from what looked like barrels resting on a trailer. It was loaded with smokey,
flaming charcoal.

There was a crowd of at least 60 people gathered, old guys in straw hats and white t-shirts,
scurrying, bleating kids, badass looking young guys with tight shiny pants, greasy hair and
pointy shoes, overdressed, olive skinned, curvy women, men in dark green factory
worker pants and steel toed shoes and their soft bellied wives with big hair-dos,
everybody gathered for the feast and fun. The salsa music was blaring through as
distorted speaker and everyone was smoking and speaking at the same time in that
percussive timbale sounding P.R. Spanish.

A group of my step father's Puerto Rican buddies; Hector, Luis, Ramon, Tato and Negro
actually dragged a live, squealing pig from a pick up truck to the sidewalk and tied its back
legs with a lasso. With cigarettes hanging from their lips, they chattered rapid fire in Spanish
as they flung the rope over the branch of a tree and heaved and hoisted the writhing and
yowling 200 pound pig up by its back legs. A little Puerto Rican woman named Antonia with
gold capped teeth, gold earrings, gold sandals and a very tight flowered dress ran out with a
galvanized bucket and positioned herself under the pig as my Stepfather slashed the pig's
throat with a huge machete. The pig jolted and jerked but the guys secured it and directed
the pulsing stream of blood into Antonia's bucket.

She hurried back into the house while the men carried the pig by its four legs down the alley
to the back yard where they prepped for the cooker. It lay splayed on a picnic table
looking more like a naked fat clown than food to me. They gutted it and used a blowtorch to
remove the pigs coarse hair. That is a smell to remember for life.

Then they popped open about 10 jars of Goya Adobo and rubbed every inch of
pig with it inside and out. They trussed up the pink pig and hauled it back out to the curb
and with much fuss and bickering, got it positioned into the pig roasting device.
Then in unison, they settled on the stoop and popped open cans of beer. And there
they would sit and drink and smoke all day, waiting for pig.
After about an hour or so however, the hors d'oeuvre arrived. It was Antonia with a steaming
plate of the Morcilla, the sausage she made of from the blood of the pig mixed with cooked
white rice and sofrito. That took a bit of courage to me try, but I really had no choice.
The almost drunk men gathered like famished hyenas to get their piece of sausage,
I had to partake or be ridiculed as the wimpy white boy a sort of was.
"C'mon, eat it", they chanted with a mix of hostility and encouragement. I took a piece.
It was amazing, rich with garlic and soft like pate.



Blood and Rice Sausage,Baby!

Splayed and golden, I love you.

So many of these foods and flavors that I have laid out here were introduced to me by
challenge. Times were different. When I was growing up it was a point of honor to eat like
the big guys. If you were “afraid” to eat the weird, er, I mean, good stuff, you were considered
less manly and you got your balls broken, if not the back of your head smacked. That is
what it was. These were people who were closer to their old ways and the flavors of a
different time. They had survived the depression, the great war and living frugally on an
impoverished Island. They were not allowed to turn their noses up at any food. They were
thankful to eat a square meal and learned to love the funky cheap parts. There were never
separate plates with chicken fingers for kids going on in my family. I learned to eat “like a man”
even if the food was introduced to me by the women who did the cooking.

Growing up with this exposure to old world food, peasant food, “Piatti Poveri” made my late
teens and 20’s as an artist and musician in NYC and Boston easy. I began working in
restaurants and I ate well, despite rarely have more than a $5 bill in my pocket. In time I
feared no food and found that if you weren’t afraid, the best flavors in the world were all
around. Indian, Asian, Eastern European, Mediterranean; the food was cheap and everywhere
in the low rent districts where we proletariat-punk-art-urchin types hung out. While so many of
my less enlightened musician friends ate crap at McDonald's, slice joints and 7-11,
I ate .85 cent falafels at Mamoun’s, $1.99 chicken vindaloo lunch specials in Central Square,
$2 Bowls of Caldo Verde loaded with Linguica sausage, beans, potatoes and kale at
Casa Portugal and .95 cent plates of chicken livers and onions with dark rye and butter at
Christine’s on Second Ave. I was living Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground like a
Gourmande.


Caldo Verde at the bar, only $2 with bread. How could I do wrong?

So much of what I learned about cooking wasn’t cooking at all. It was eating. When I finally
began to truly began to develop my own cooking style it was driven my memory of these
flavorsthat imbedded themselves in my brain. Later in my life when I got into professional
kitchens I wasn’t satisfied until the recollections of those flavors were fulfilled.
There was no Google to source. I worked from books and olfactory and gustatory memory.
I would tweak and season and taste over and over until I found those flavors that were
deep in my psyche and I was able to bring them to life. My style is flavor first.
The techniques came later from study and working with other chefs.


These are the stories of how became a beloved chef. It’s the story of my upbringing, of my
comeuppance, of my challenges. It is not about technique, it’s about passion for sharing
flavors.  I made my name by being fearless with the boldest flavors. Long before ethnic
food trucks were sending out international effluvium all over the city squares, I was cooking
and serving my assertive food and winning over the early foodies, the people want to brag
to their friends about the cool stuff they ate.

My life as a chef has been about taking what I love, giving it to you and hoping you love it too.
The number one lesson I have for people who want to be good cooks is in order to learn to
cook, you have to learn to love to eat. If you don’t love to eat, your food will be hollow,
just style over substance.
One of my least favorite terms of social media these days is food porn. I hate that phrase and
I’m going to tell you why. To me porn is shallow, contrived, artificial, and empty. I correct people
who call my food photos on social media food porn. I remind them that my food is not porn,
my food is love.
I hope you love it too.

Have a great pie.








Waiting for food at Jimmie's on Savin Rock



2 comments:

  1. Interesting read ... truly enlightening... a true culinary dare devil snails �� ... piss clams .. keep up the fantastic work ... I really enjoyed this read ..

    ReplyDelete
  2. Delighted to have my question answered so thoroughly Chef Ric!

    ReplyDelete