Shuck, salivate, slurp. Feeling clammy yet?
That may not be a bad thing, especially when it comes to summertime traditions like clam shacks in Western New York. When the “Open” sign clicks on after a long winter, dining on shellfish al fresco is a sure sign that the living is easy and the heat is on.
While the number of clam shacks in the region has diminished over the years, the popularity of those remaining are a testament to the insatiable appetite we locals have for the menu items on the board.
Part of the appeal is our short summers, said Steve Meli, at the helm for 38 years of Steve’s Clam Bar on Hertel Avenue in Buffalo. “I always say there are only 130 shopping days left,” he chuckled, referring to the typical late-April- through-early-fall shack season.
Meli also attributes the allure to the traditions of his youth.
“Every neighborhood is known for something. On the West Side, it was pizzerias, bakeries, and clam shacks; people harken to that culture,” said Meli. “Whether it’s clams, ceviche, lobster, shrimp, oysters, or chowder, customers love to belly up to the bar on a warm night and carry on that custom.”
Mark Marotto, the harmonica-playing chef/owner of the Kenmore restaurant that bears his name, said opening his clam shack 17 years ago was the catalyst for the growth of his business.
“It’s a Buffalo thing. On a hot, humid day, what’s better than glomming down a dozen ice-cold raw clams? People like to see fresh food shucked before their eyes; with our proximity to New England, the Rhode Island clams I use are harvested 24 hours before I serve them,” Marotto said. “My clams casino are in demand — I ship them to L.A., Dallas, even Philadelphia. I use the clam liquor for the bisque, which customers will order even if it’s 90 degrees out.”
Jason Terio, part of the family that owns Santino’s on Clinton Street in Elma, says his clam shack draws patrons who find the eats synonymous with our glorious summers.
“It’s like going to the fair; certain foods are best enjoyed under the sun,” said Terio. “We have picnic tables inside a fenced area, so we see a lot of families. With everything from lobster dainties to crab clusters to fresh corn, there’s something for everyone to enjoy.”
In the Northtowns, jaunty signs and a brightly colored deck set the tone for the Old Man River Seafood Shack and Barbecue Pit on Niagara Street in Tonawanda. An extensive seafood selection is available, including full dinners, platters, all the other shack standards and live music, along with a selection of beer and wine.
“As soon as we start to set up, people drive by and ask when we’ll be open,” said manager Marge Zajdel. “Our customers know quality food and want to cram in outdoor dining on a lovely summer day as soon as possible.”