The regulars at Randazzo’s Clam Bar know what to order. I was still learning the ropes, though, so I invited suggestions.
My server’s advice was quick and definitive. “Get the calama’,” she said. “That’s why you’re here.”
Strictly speaking, the fried calamari was not the reason I had driven down Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn until it dead-ended at the white row of fishing ships and booze-cruise leviathans on Sheepshead Bay, then parked in front of the neon lobster with the name Randazzo’s pinched between its upheld claws.
No, it was the Sauce.
Randazzo’s makes any number of tomato sauces, but only one Sauce. It has two speeds, spicy and medium, but the dark, intense, concentrated, oregano-accented essence is the same. The tomatoes cook down for an eternity and then some, until they are as deeply caramelized as a pan of fried sausage and onions.
The Sauce can be ladled on hot or chilled lobster, on fried shrimp, on steamed mussels or on chopped scungilli, where it works a particularly satisfying alchemy. And of course, it is poured over floured and fried calamari. A pure distillation of Italian-American cuisine, the Sauce tastes as if a chemical analysis would reveal the blueprint for every great dish in every red-sauce joint in the country.
I found many other things to like at Randazzo’s, but yes, the Sauce was the reason I was there. It is the reason many people were devastated when the restaurant was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy last October, and the reason they cheered when it reopened just before Christmas.
And, in a sense, the Sauce is the reason Randazzo’s is there in the first place. Decades ago, when the boats leaving Sheepshead Bay each morning carried men who fished for their living, the Randazzo family owned a seafood shop and a bar on Emmons Avenue. As a cheap bar snack, they handed out fried squid, which back then was more likely to be found on the end of a hook than the end of a fork, along with Helen Randazzo’s long-simmered Sauce.
“They would cut the bar down a little every year and put in tables, because more people would be sitting down,” said Helen’s oldest grandson, Paul Randazzo. In 1964, the bar graduated to a clam bar with a menu of six items, not counting the Sauce.
As the mounds of cherrystone shells grew, so did the family business, adding on a formal Italian restaurant that served pasta, broiled seafood and other Helen Randazzo recipes. When it closed in 1994, it bequeathed those dishes to the clam bar.
They are still on the menu today for customers who look beyond the Sauce. Marcella Hazan may rap me on the knuckles with her cheese grater for this, but I am crazy about Randazzo’s shrimp parmigiana. The restaurant buys wild shrimp netted in the Gulf of Mexico, and their substantial flavor comes through even after they have been breaded, fried, doused with marinara and blanketed with browned fresh mozzarella.
That flavor comes through just as clearly in the shrimp fra diavolo, with a heap of pasta under spicy tomato sauce and, just so you don’t forget where you are, a few clams. As a parade of marine life, though, the dish has nothing on the lobster fra diavolo, which supplements clams and shrimp with mussels and an entire Canadian lobster, ideally tender and sweet the night I had it.
A different lobster dish on another night was problematic. The stuffing was an unexciting blend of baby shrimp, bread crumbs and, supposedly, crab meat. The claws were overdone to a rubbery dryness, but the tail, cooked more gently, had its quality intact.
Randazzo’s pasta with clams is a lesson in the meaning of generous portions: about a quarter-acre of linguine or spaghetti weighed down who knows how many chopped clams, very sweet and very fresh, and untold cloves of sliced garlic. The pasta is exactly the kind that Italian restaurants in this country served 40 years ago, before the phrase “al dente” got its green card. It is boiled in water with little if any salt, which is less of a drawback when the sauce piled on top is a hearty one like fra diavolo rather than a thin one like the marechiara.
Very simple seafood dishes found at shacks up and down the East Coast can be quite good at Randazzo’s: the raw Long Island oysters, littlenecks and cherrystones shucked at the counter; the steamers, free of grit once they are rinsed in their broth and dunked in drawn butter; the fat crab cakes wrapped in a spicy bread-crumb coating but otherwise light on the filler; the Manhattan chowder and, even though it is slightly thickened with cornstarch, the New England, both weighty with potatoes and clams.
Less enticing are the lobster bisque and the corn-and-crab chowder, neither of which tastes much like its namesake shellfish. And given how pure most of the seafood is, I wish the fried clams were the squishy whole-belly variety, not chewy frozen strips in a sarcophagus of breading.
This is one food that is beyond the help of the Sauce. Another is the slice of bread, slightly less hard than granite, that waits on each platter of calamari to traumatize the loose molars of neophytes. Simultaneously soggy and dry, hot and cold, it is too bizarre and unfathomable to be called awful; it is simply one of the world’s mysteries, to be discussed while eating all the squid around it.
Helen Randazzo was, according to her grandson, a virtual pescetarian. Still, her recipe for cut-up chicken marinated in lemon, olive oil, garlic and oregano, then roasted and charred under the broiler, is very good. Perhaps out of her distaste for land animals, she gave the dish the unalluring name “burnt chicken.”
Paul Randazzo, who owns the place now, eats fish nearly every day, but he gave it up for the two months that his restaurant was closed after the hurricane. It was a form of protest, I imagine. The night of the storm, he was inside Randazzo’s, standing on chairs and then on the counter when the bay refused to stay outside the doors. When he wanted company, he said, he got on a raft and paddled down what, just that afternoon, had been Emmons Avenue to visit a friend who was holed up on the second floor of Loehmann’s.
Did anything in the restaurant survive the flood?
Today the pink-granite floor tiles, the mirrored wall painted with a scene of the marina, the tables, the chairs and the restrooms are new. The faces are not. Mr. Randazzo, his wife and his four children still tend to customers, who come in all shapes, sizes, colors and ages. Randazzo’s prices are not intimidating, especially for fresh seafood, and the welcome at the door is heartfelt.
Had I grown up eating at Randazzo’s, the emotion I felt tasting the Sauce might be love. But as a relative newcomer, I’ll have to settle for gratitude.
Randazzo’s Clam Bar
2017 Emmons Avenue (East 21st Street), Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn; (718) 615-0010; randazzosclambar.com
ATMOSPHERE Suitable for party people on their way to a Russian nightclub, weekend warriors just off a fishing boat and everyone in between.
SERVICE Familiar with regulars, welcoming to first-timers and children.
SOUND LEVEL Just like home, if you have a big, loud family.
RECOMMENDED Seafood with hot or medium sauce; raw clams and oysters; clam chowder; crab-cake sandwich; shrimp parmigiana; lobster or shrimp fra diavolo; fried zucchini; “burnt chicken.”
DRINKS AND WINE Bolla in full or half bottles; Woodbridge in pony bottles; beer.
PRICES Soups and sandwiches, $5 to $16.95; other dishes, $10.95 to $27.95, or market price.
OPEN Lunch and dinner daily.
RESERVATIONS Only for parties of 10 or more.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS The dining room and restrooms are on street level.
WHAT THE STARS MEAN Ratings range from zero to four stars and reflect the reviewer’s reaction primarily to food, with ambience, service and price taken into consideration.