29 July 2011

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to Randazzo's?"

Randazzo's Clam Bar is one New York eating institution that hasn't become a caricature of itself. It's talks like a Brooklyn clam bar and walks like a Brooklyn clam bar. May it ever do so.
Who Goes There? Randazzo's Clam Bar
"This is the only place I'll eat raw clams," said the reedy man in the red t-shirt. In a Quentin Tarantino version of "Gilligan's Island," he'd play the title character. "People forget there used to be three Randazzo's." The cute cashier, dressed in sweat pants and a t-shirt bearing the Greek letters of a sorority, looks up, as if in response to a favorite topic. "This was the straight clam bar. Then there was a sit-down restaurant next door. And a surf and turf place. And they were always packed."
I look around the 95-year-old clam bar. Looks like Randazzo's is still packed. A Wednesday night, and every table is full, every stool. The noise level is high. "That's because people remember," said the reedy man. "People don't forget. They remember and they come back." He looks down at my plate of cherrystones and bowl of New England chowder. "Having a clam fest, huh?" he comments. Well, it is Randazzo's Clam Bar, perhaps the most famous place to get clams in New York. "What you really want to get is the fried calamari with sauce. Nobody makes it like they do here. Everyone gets it." I look around again. It's true. Many of the tables are crowned with calamari and the sauce that is mentioned as "famous" in every Randazzo's write-up. New servings just out of the kitchen are sailing through the room on the arms of shopworn waitresses, old women in black who look like they've put in a lifetime of long days.
The professorial man next to me at the counter, who's been reading the paper through dinner, signals he's finished. Emilio, who rules the counter trade, collect the plates and calls out the prices of every dish consumed. The cute cashier rings them up. "$43.75," says the cashier. "Is that all?" deadpans Emilio. "Isn't that enough," replied the customer, whose sigh is only half put-on. The prices are high here. But a sign on the wall silences anyone who would complain. "Cheap seafood is not fresh," it reads, "and fresh seafood is not cheap." "Next time we'll charge you twice," smiles the cashier. The professor takes off his glasses and hands them to Emilio. They weren't his, it turns out. He had borrowed them from Randazzo's.
A fat man in a brick-colored polo shirt takes the professor's place. "Hell, Mike, what do you want," says Emilio. Emilio, a light-hearted presence with salt and pepper hair, knows everyone's name, and everyone knows Emilio. That said, he'll sometimes call people "Doc." "I'll start with a bowl of Red," says the fat man. Emilio lays down a paper place mat and dishes up some Manhattan Clam Chowder and a couple packets of oyster crackers. Five minutes later, he asks for a dozen littleneck clams. "One Neck!" Emilio bellows. The man behind the shucking counter, who looks like a relative of Emilio's, begins shucking. Another five minutes, and the fat man wants a bowl of linguini with calamari sauce on top.
It's 9 PM. The crowd had thinned a bit, but now it's filling up again. Everyone's dressed in the most casual of wear. You can tell they're Sheepheads Bay residents who hadn't traveled far. The men are semi-slumped, sitting far back in their chairs. Randazzo's serves the kind of fare that sends you into a post-Thanksgiving-type recline. People were eating the Italian dishes as much as the seafood. But, then, many of them were Italian-American and were talking in Italian. I looked at the lobster figurine near me. He was holding a plate of mints. Standing next to him was a lobster-shaped cup filled with straws, and not far from that a lobster statue that offered calling cards. Outside a neon lobster lit up the night. Why so many lobsters in a joint known for clams? "One Cherry!" yells Emilio. OK, OK, I'll have that dish of calamari. Does this stool recline?
—Brooks of Sheffield

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