What does it take to make the best clam pizza in the world? To answer that, I would say this: you start with a Neapolitan-style pizza crust, then you add freshly shucked littleneck clams, garlic, olive oil, oregano and a light shower of grated Parmesan cheese. Finito! A white clam pie. And if you want to really gild this lily, add some crisp chips of bacon (or pancetta) to the mix. Oh, and don’t forget to use a coal-fired pizza oven. If you don’t believe me, then you should travel to New Haven, Connecticut, and eat a clam pie at Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana on Wooster Street (just be prepared for the line out the door and down the street). But just because you don’t have a coal-fired oven doesn’t mean you can’t create a great clam pie. Keep in mind that using the word “Napoletana” in conjunction with pizza signifies that the crust has a frame –– a border –– that is somewhat thick, chewy (maybe even a bit tough at times), and there are burn marks (sometimes a lot of them) on the crust from the oven (coal-fired or wood-burning). The rest of the pie, the part that flows out from the frame (the center of the pie), is quite thin and often a bit “wet.”
Let me repeat, a white clam pie needs only a terrific crust, freshly shucked littleneck clams (preferably from around Rhode Island), garlic, olive oil, oregano and quality, grated Parmesan. I don’t think I need to remind you that a “white” pie is called just that because no tomatoes — fresh or sauce — are used.
Many of you land-locked pizzeria owners don’t have access to fresh littleneck clams. And you don’t have enough people in your kitchen to shuck fresh clams, even if you had a steady supply. So what’s the solution? Simple. Use canned clams. Will a pie using canned clams taste the same as one using fresh clams? No, never. Fresh littleneck clams are bigger and have a “belly” that adds to the mouth feel. But do not despair. It all boils (or bakes) down to coming up with just the right flavor profile and, as I have said in this magazine so many times in the past, balance –– a perfect balance between the crust and the toppings.
Quite often, I make a white clam pie at home using canned clams. (Note: I stopped here while writing this article and went into my storage area and grabbed a can of clams which read: “Cape May Chopped Sea Clams. 100 percent Sea Clams.”) It’s a 51-ounce (three pounds, three ounces) can of clams.
Allow me to make a distinction here. Recently I ate at a new seafood restaurant (shack) in Chicago. I had the clam chowder and the fried clams. Neither met my expectations. Though the “chowder” part was flavorful, the clams in the chowder were tough and chewy. And the fried clams, though noted as being “belly” clams, weren’t plump and they were over fried. Neither would make the grade on the East Coast. My point? Unless you have access to the finest fresh clams, don’t waste your time and money (canned clams are less expensive than fresh clams). Go with canned chopped clams for your clam pie. A compromise? Definitely, but one that will pay off with your customers in the long run. In the end, it’s simply a matter of jacking up the flavor. See the sidebar recipe to learn how to do that.
/// Ah, Shucks! Great Clam Pie
Garlic infused olive oil to brush on the entire crust. Crush 1 clove of garlic into 3 tablespoons of quality olive oil. Let it sit at room temperature for several hours.
Canned chopped (not minced) clams. For a 12-inch (diameter) pie you will need about 1½ cups (juice reserved separately).
Yield: 1 12-inch pizza (scale up in direct proportion)
3 tablespoons garlic-infused extra-virgin olive oil
1 clove crushed garlic (use 2 cloves if you are a garlic lover)
1½ cups canned chopped clams, juices reserved
2 teaspoons (or to taste) dried oregano
2 tablespoon fresh thyme (or 2 teaspoons dried)
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons reserved clam juice
1 teaspoon (or to taste) crushed red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
Brush the entire crust (shell) with the garlic oil. Spread the clams evenly over the crust.
Sprinkle on the oregano and the thyme. Sprinkle on the Parmesan cheese.
Drizzle the reserved clam juice over the pie (except for the crust edge). Add the red pepper flakes.
Bake the pizza. Add the minced fresh parsley just before sending it out.
Add additional crushed or thinly-sliced garlic as needed for, say, a Garlic Lover’s Clam Pie.
Add an additional flavor dimension by adding chips of crisp bacon or pancetta (sprinkle it on right after you spread the clams over the crust).
While it is true that this is a white clam pie, you can add color, texture and flavor by layering on strips of roasted red peppers ( just before baking).
Pat Bruno is Pizza Today’s resident chef and a regular contributor. He is the former owner and operator of a prominent Italian cooking school in Chicago and is a food critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.