"Clams are reflective of the area they’re harvested from, just like an oyster.”

By Sara Ventiera
July 08, 2019
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Michael Cimarusti doesn’t remember the name of the restaurant, but he vividly remembers the experience.

It was an old-fashioned place in Providence, Rhode Island with dark wood booths and those classic serrated steak knives with the wooden handles. All around the room, he saw piles of fried clam bellies served in what looked like a giant clamshell. Cimarusti was about nine years old, and he wanted it. Badly.

“That clam shell was as big as my head, and my sister and I ate the whole damn thing,” says Cimarusti.

That moment was one in a string of experiences—fishing with his dad and grandfather in New England during summer breaks, eating sand strewn clam cakes on Scarborough Beach, getting promoted to the fish station at Le Cirque in his early twenties—that kicked-started the New Jersey-born chef's obsession with fish and shellfish. 

Through his L.A.-based mini-empire of restaurants—including two Michelin starred Providence, New England-inspired Connie & Ted’s, Best Girl at Ace Hotel Downtown, and Il Pesce Cucina inside Eataly L.A.—the 2019 James Beard “Best Chef: West” award-winner has made a name for himself as one of the nation’s leading experts on sustainable seafood. It’s easy to get him going on any kind of fish or sea creature, but for him, clams are like his Proustian madeleine, transporting him back to that Providence restaurant, the little seafood shack he frequented on the shore, and many summers spent soaking in the northern Atlantic breeze.

“Clams are super briny and reflective of the area they’re harvested from, just like an oyster,” says Cimarusti. “A big clam is not only a mouthful of clam, it’s a mouthful of seawater and that’s what makes them distinct and delicious.”

Below, he breaks down the seven major clam species that grow in the United States.

Atlantic Hard-Shell Clams (Mercenaria mercenaria)

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The hard shell clams that grow up and down the eastern seaboard of North America go by many different names: littlenecks, cherrystones, middlenecks, chowder, quahogs. (Listed from smallest to largest.) It’s all the same species, harvested at different stages of life. “It’s just size and age,” says Cimarusti. “The bigger they get, the more chew they have.”

The different sizes have different uses and applications. Littlenecks are commonly served in pastas, like linguine with clams, or raw. Cimarusti, however, prefers to use larger topnecks or middlenecks with a bit of lemon juice and a good spicy horseradish for his raw clams, he says, “If you’re going to eat it raw, you should know you have a clam in your mouth: Littlenecks are not as satisfying.”

Cimarusti’s rule of thumb for these sorts of clams is that if it’s bigger than the circle made in your hand when you touch your thumb and index finger together—though, he admits it depends on the size of one’s hands—it’s too big to eat raw, grilled or broiled with the meat on its own.

Cherrystones are best chopped up, added to chowder or as stuffies. Slightly different from an Italian American-style baked clam, New England stuffies are made with by shucking the clam raw, saving the juice, chopping up the meat, and blending it with lots of bread and other aromatics, baking it until hot, and finishing it under the broiler.

Chowder clams and quahogs are the next two sizes up. Neither are very common outside of the Northeast unless you’re foraging on your own. Both are good for the same sorts of applications as Cherrystones, but it's a lot of clam and a very big shell.

Soft-shell clams (Mya arenaria)

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Known as steamers, Ipswich, or pisser clams, soft-shell clams look completely different from their hard shell brethren. A foot is always sticking out of the side and the shell, which never closes, sort of like a tiny version of a Geoduck. “It’s sweeter and nuttier [than hardshells],” says Cimarusti. “The meat is very tender.”

In coastal seafood joints up and down the East Coast, soft-shells are traditionally steamed, then drained and served with a cup of that drained broth, and a cup of drawn butter. To eat, diners peel the dark membrane from the foot, dip and swish the meat in the broth to rinse off any excess sand, and dunk it in the butter.

Soft-shell crabs are also served deep-fried as clam bellies, which are wonderful when made by someone who knows what they’re doing. In New England, where deep-fried seafood is highly respected, many clam shacks use a bit of evaporated milk to help the corn flour dredge cling to the meat. “Just like serving a great raw clam is not an easy thing to do, fried clam bellies requires experience and knowledge and a lot of time spent working on these things,” says Cimarusti.

Manila clams (Venerupis philippinarum)

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Sort of like a hybrid of both Atlantic hard and soft-shell clams, Manila clams have a hard shell with a tiny siphon that sticks out the side. Native to the Pacific Ocean, this clam is reared in farms up and down the West Coast. Simple in flavor, salty with some natural umami, they’re good raw, steamed in broth, and in pasta, but they don’t have the same level of brine that’s common with Atlantic species. “I don’t relish them the way I crave East Coast clams,” says Cimarusti, who serves them in various well-executed preparations in his restaurants. “I don't have the same lust in my heart.”

Surf clams (Spisula solida)