When Ryan Hardy, the chef behind two of New York City’s hottest restaurants, consistently asks his new kitchen to fire up a certain pizza for him, you know it’s gotta be good.
Consider that this particular pie contains no red sauce, zero pepperoni and not a speck of cheese, yet the whole city is clamoring to get a taste. Now you’re starting to grasp just how seductive this thing really is. Hot out of the oven, it’s the clam pizza at Pasquale Jones.
“Though some were incredulous, we took a swing at it,” Hardy says of putting the pie on his new menu. The trouble with this pizza is its dangerous propensity to go wrong. Chewy, overdone clams and what Pasquale Jones chef Tim Caspare describes as a “muddy” flavor are two of the biggest mistakes.
It's a high-risk pie—which makes it all the better when it's done well with the right combination of briny clam juice and luscious cream, leaving you thinking of nothing else for days.
He should know. Pepe’s, as it’s affectionately called, was the first place to popularize what is now hailed as New Haven-style clam pizza. Though Italians have been putting shellfish on their pies for years, Bimonte claims that his grandfather, Frank Pepe, “was one of the first people, if not the first person, in Connecticut to put clams on pizza.”
It was 1937, Bimonte estimates, when a man set up a cart selling clams on the half shell in the alleyway beside Pepe’s new pizzeria.
“So [my grandfather] put a bunch of clams on the pizza, and everyone loved it," Bimonte says. “It was a big hit right away."
The addictive pie is covered in freshly shucked clams and their cooking liquid, plus garlic, olive oil and fresh oregano. Though it’s difficult to find elsewhere in the country, restaurants around the Northeast have embraced the pie. Pepe’s itself is expanding, having just opened a location in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, and looking to develop upward of 20 East Coast locations in the future.
Franny’s in Brooklyn has served a clam pie with chile and parsley since its opening night in 2004. “I never had a good one before eating the one Andrew developed,” Franny’s co-owner, Francine Stephens, says of the pie her husband and co-owner developed.
All sorts of other variations are springing open: NYC’s L'Amico makes a clam pie with garlic-ramp butter and guanciale, and Speedy Romeo’s take has pancetta, kale, fontina, béchamel and lemon. The newly opened Denino’s in Greenwich Village doesn’t skimp on the clams, and at Ruschmeyer’s in the Hamptons, the secret ingredient is a little honey in the dough. “It works so well with the salty clam sauce,” chef Savannah Jordan says.
At Pasquale Jones, Caspare whips the cream-based, clam liqueur-spiked sauce, because it’s easy to spread and slows the caramelization, preventing ingredients from over-charring in the hot oven. A squeeze from the lemon served on top of the pie or a few drops of fermented Calabrian chile oil from a jar on the table pierces through the sauce’s “umami vibe,” as Caspare calls it, brightening the whole dish.
“The unsung hero of that pizza is really the bite of the broccoli rabe,” Hardy says. The bitter component makes you think, and chew, a little harder . . . before you totally bliss out.
What Bimonte says of Pepe’s clam pizza applies to Pasquale Jones’s pie, too: “The oven is just so hot that something magical happens.” Shell yeah, it’s magical.
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