One of the soundest refutations to that Italian-food-snob taboo, no cheese shall sully the seafood, is the great white clam pie. Fresh, briny clams, pungent garlic, sharp but not too sharp pecorino, some fresh oregano on a nice puffy pizza—screw the rules, what’s not to like? Throw in some bacon, and you’ve really got something. It’s pretty much agreed—and it isn’t easy for certain members of the New York pizza cognoscenti to swallow—that this, one of the indisputable all-time great pizzas, was invented not in New York but in the provinces (well, New Haven). Francis Rosselli, grandson of Frank Pepe, founder of Wooster Square’s legendary Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, a.k.a., Pepe’s, will confirm it. “I witnessed it,” he says. According to Roselli, the bivalve pizza was invented in the mid-sixties by chance. Pepe’s served an appetizer of clams on the half-shell, and with the proximity of the pizza dough, one thing led to another. Now it’s Pepe’s signature topping, eclipsed in sales only by pepperoni. So why is it such a relative rarity hereabouts? Rosselli attributes this to the prohibitive cost of good fresh clams and the stamina required to shuck 70 bushels or so a week (Pepe’s employs three full-time shuckers). Lately, though, the clam pie is making a New York resurgence, with a new breed of clam-pizza partisans emerging. A clam pie, says Andrew Feinberg of Franny’s, whose stellar (and, by the way, cheeseless) version is pictured, is just “something a pizzeria should have.”
On the menu since day one, Feinberg’s $17 unsliced parsley-strewn pie is an utterly original, haute-chef concoction: Littlenecks are steamed in olive oil, onion, garlic, and white wine; clams removed, their liquor is cooked down in a pan to which cream is added. This thick sauce (“between crème fraîche and heavy cream”) is spread on the dough, topped with the shelled clams and a sprinkle of chile. In the wood-burning oven, the sauce caramelizes a bit, yielding what Feinberg calls “a salty, umami kind of flavor.” 295 Flatbush Ave., nr. Prospect Pl., Park Slope; 718-230-0221.
Chef Matthew Schaefer used to work at Le Bernardin, where Saturday staff meal was always pizza, but clam pie is something he makes at home for his wife. This new restaurant occupies Park Slope’s old Lento’s location, and the forthcoming bar menu will capitalize on the inherited pizza oven with an individual clam pie made from Vermont-milled flour, raw-milk pecorino, piment d’espelette, fresh oregano and garlic, and Manila clams in the shell. 833 Union St., nr. Seventh Ave., Park Slope; 718-857-8828.
Back in the day, co-owner John Brescio recalls, Gennaro Lombardi would make a clam pie at Christmastime for friends and family. Brescio got the recipe from Lombardi’s grandson and installed it on the menu in 1994: Drizzle olive oil on dough, add black pepper and oregano, cook halfway, then add chopped oven-steamed cherrystone clams and bake for another minute and a half; garnish with parsley, pecorino, and a whole lemon. People come from out of state for a taste of the $26 pizza, says Brescio, but “you gotta enjoy seafood to appreciate clam pie.” 32 Spring St., nr. Mott St.; 212-941-7994.
Nothing about Otto’s underrated griddled pizzas is orthodox, including their Vongole pie ($14). While pecorino is the cheese of choice among most white-clam-pie connoisseurs, Otto uses fresh mozzarella, and rather than spend endless hours shucking, they steam New Zealand cockles and plop them right on top of the pizza, shells and all—fifteen cockles per pie. “For the true Italian clam lover, the shell is the guarantee of freshness,” says partner Mario Batali. “It means one less step away from the sea.” 1 Fifth Ave., at 8th St.; 212-995-9559.
Michael Ayoub’s extensive menu actually offers two clam pies: the red Del Pescatore, with anchovies and shrimp, and the Vongole ($12 small, $20 large), which hews closer to the New Haven archetype. It does diverge, though, with the addition of mozzarella, a controversial but successful touch. Parmesan contributes sharpness and oregano completes the classic flavor profile. 187 Bedford Ave., nr. N. 7th St., Williamsburg; 718-384-6004.
South Brooklyn Pizza
For months, Jim McGown, the pizzaiolo-owner of this new Carroll Gardens coal-oven pizzeria, stood firm by his convictions and refused to cook any other pizza than a Margherita. Recently, he’s had a change of heart and added a very good fresh chopped-clam-pecorino- and-bacon pie ($18) to his repertoire. Pepe, we think, would be proud. 451 Court St., nr. 4th Pl., Carroll Gardens; 718-852-6018.