Years ago, Sheepshead Bay was defined by its garish row of working-class clam bars. One by one they went down for the count, as urban renewal turned the row of businesses facing the fishing piers into the preferred modern mix of establishments, including a Japanese steakhouse, a cappuccino parlor, several upscale boutiques, and a comedy club. Yet through this welter of contemporaneity still shines, after more than 50 years, Randazzo's red neon lobster.
In the 19th century Coney Island was so loaded with clams, both in the sand and among the rocks, that they became the signature food of the region. Clams cooked in butter cost a penny apiece, and an entire meal of them got you a free bowl of chowder. While shellfish lust has turned to raw oysters gathered around the world, Randazzo's still celebrates the humble quahog, though nowadays they come from Long Island. Two varieties are shucked and served raw: big and mild cherrystones (a half-dozen $7), and smaller and sweeter littlenecks (a half-dozen $6.50). While raw oysters are slurpy, stringy, and seminiferous, raw clams provide a more rubbery and contemplative chew. Randazzo's opens oysters, too, of course, but only local bluepoints.
Anything made of clams rocks at Randazzo's. The clam chowder (cup $2, bowl $3) comes in standard-issue white and red, the latter rather bland and sweet. Turning its back on all things Manhattan, Randazzo's white clam chowder is especially delicious, though it's not like the kind found up and down the New England coast. Randazzo's is, after all, a working-class joint, and flour rather than cream is the thickener of choice, making a gourmet library paste that depends solely on clam broth for its depth of flavor. There's no shortage of clams, eitherone might almost wish for more potatoes.
The fried clams ($6.95) are some of the best in town, a little more thickly breaded than in the fancy places, offered in fragments of wildly varying size. They come with a remarkable tomato sauce: dark, dense, spicy, and saturated with oregano. It stands in stark contrast to the pallid tomato dip at other Brooklyn seafood palaces like Casa Calamari and Spumoni Gardens. The fried calamari, however, doesn't fare so well, posing the question: Why choose squid in a place that specializes in clams? Ditto the scungilli ($9.95), allocated in miniature gray cubes yielding no taste whatsoever. Even Randazzo's spicy sauce fails to improve either dish.
The menu flaunts more expensive seafood, too, most of it from distant watersking crab legs, salmon, shrimp, lobster. Of the luxury dishes, my favorite is pasta with lobster sauce ($14.95), masses of al dente linguine heaped with a mild red puree rife with big hunks of lobster, enough for two to share as a main course. Non-seafood choices are refreshingly limited to spaghetti with garlic and olive oil and a couple of chicken dishes.
Those who eschew the pricey seafood establishments of Manhattan will take particular pleasure in Randazzo's decor. This relentlessly lit sea of Formica fills with Brooklyn characters who cherish the no-nonsense approach to shore dining. In place of music, the p.a. crackles as orders are transmitted from the front counter to the kitchen. The fry cooks gyrate in full display of the diners, as the cashiera glamorous blond who wears her shades indoors like a movie starlooks on with mild disdain. Across the room, a plastic sea bass mounted on a plaque stands ready to sing at the flip of a switch. Beats a Japanese steakhouse any day of the week.
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