"Clams are reflective of the area they’re harvested from, just like an oyster.”

By Sara Ventiera
Updated: July 08, 2019
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Michael Cimarusti doesn’t remember the name of the restaurant, but he vividly remembers the experience.

It was an old-fashioned place in Providence, Rhode Island with dark wood booths and those classic serrated steak knives with the wooden handles. All around the room, he saw piles of fried clam bellies served in what looked like a giant clamshell. Cimarusti was about nine years old, and he wanted it. Badly.

“That clam shell was as big as my head, and my sister and I ate the whole damn thing,” says Cimarusti.

That moment was one in a string of experiences—fishing with his dad and grandfather in New England during summer breaks, eating sand strewn clam cakes on Scarborough Beach, getting promoted to the fish station at Le Cirque in his early twenties—that kicked-started the New Jersey-born chef's obsession with fish and shellfish. 

Through his L.A.-based mini-empire of restaurants—including two Michelin starred Providence, New England-inspired Connie & Ted’s, Best Girl at Ace Hotel Downtown, and Il Pesce Cucina inside Eataly L.A.—the 2019 James Beard “Best Chef: West” award-winner has made a name for himself as one of the nation’s leading experts on sustainable seafood. It’s easy to get him going on any kind of fish or sea creature, but for him, clams are like his Proustian madeleine, transporting him back to that Providence restaurant, the little seafood shack he frequented on the shore, and many summers spent soaking in the northern Atlantic breeze.

“Clams are super briny and reflective of the area they’re harvested from, just like an oyster,” says Cimarusti. “A big clam is not only a mouthful of clam, it’s a mouthful of seawater and that’s what makes them distinct and delicious.”

Below, he breaks down the seven major clam species that grow in the United States.

Atlantic Hard-Shell Clams (Mercenaria mercenaria)

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The hard shell clams that grow up and down the eastern seaboard of North America go by many different names: littlenecks, cherrystones, middlenecks, chowder, quahogs. (Listed from smallest to largest.) It’s all the same species, harvested at different stages of life. “It’s just size and age,” says Cimarusti. “The bigger they get, the more chew they have.”

The different sizes have different uses and applications. Littlenecks are commonly served in pastas, like linguine with clams, or raw. Cimarusti, however, prefers to use larger topnecks or middlenecks with a bit of lemon juice and a good spicy horseradish for his raw clams, he says, “If you’re going to eat it raw, you should know you have a clam in your mouth: Littlenecks are not as satisfying.”

Cimarusti’s rule of thumb for these sorts of clams is that if it’s bigger than the circle made in your hand when you touch your thumb and index finger together—though, he admits it depends on the size of one’s hands—it’s too big to eat raw, grilled or broiled with the meat on its own.

Cherrystones are best chopped up, added to chowder or as stuffies. Slightly different from an Italian American-style baked clam, New England stuffies are made with by shucking the clam raw, saving the juice, chopping up the meat, and blending it with lots of bread and other aromatics, baking it until hot, and finishing it under the broiler.

Chowder clams and quahogs are the next two sizes up. Neither are very common outside of the Northeast unless you’re foraging on your own. Both are good for the same sorts of applications as Cherrystones, but it's a lot of clam and a very big shell.

Soft-shell clams (Mya arenaria)

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Known as steamers, Ipswich, or pisser clams, soft-shell clams look completely different from their hard shell brethren. A foot is always sticking out of the side and the shell, which never closes, sort of like a tiny version of a Geoduck. “It’s sweeter and nuttier [than hardshells],” says Cimarusti. “The meat is very tender.”

In coastal seafood joints up and down the East Coast, soft-shells are traditionally steamed, then drained and served with a cup of that drained broth, and a cup of drawn butter. To eat, diners peel the dark membrane from the foot, dip and swish the meat in the broth to rinse off any excess sand, and dunk it in the butter.

Soft-shell crabs are also served deep-fried as clam bellies, which are wonderful when made by someone who knows what they’re doing. In New England, where deep-fried seafood is highly respected, many clam shacks use a bit of evaporated milk to help the corn flour dredge cling to the meat. “Just like serving a great raw clam is not an easy thing to do, fried clam bellies requires experience and knowledge and a lot of time spent working on these things,” says Cimarusti.

Manila clams (Venerupis philippinarum)

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Sort of like a hybrid of both Atlantic hard and soft-shell clams, Manila clams have a hard shell with a tiny siphon that sticks out the side. Native to the Pacific Ocean, this clam is reared in farms up and down the West Coast. Simple in flavor, salty with some natural umami, they’re good raw, steamed in broth, and in pasta, but they don’t have the same level of brine that’s common with Atlantic species. “I don’t relish them the way I crave East Coast clams,” says Cimarusti, who serves them in various well-executed preparations in his restaurants. “I don't have the same lust in my heart.”

Surf clams (Spisula solida)

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Residing on the Eastern seaboard of North America, from South Carolina to Nova Scotia, Surf clams can be found on the ocean floor to depths of up to 120 feet. One would rarely see them called out on a menu or at a fish shop. Most surf clams are processed, often mechanically cut into clam strips. “I have an appreciation for strips,” says Cimarusti. “They’re sweet if you get good ones.”

Pacific razor clams (Siliqua patula)

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A must-try in Oregon and Washington, long and lean Pacific razor clams have a firm texture and mild brininess with a subtle sweetness. They're good raw or cooked, especially the white leg that the clams use to burrow into the sand. At Connie & Ted’s, Cimarusti uses it as the base for his clam cakes. “It’s super sweet and super tender,” he says. “Of all the clams we tried in the recipe, Pacific razor clams worked out best.”

Atlantic Jackknife clam (Ensis leei)

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The East Coast counterpart to the Pacific razor clam, the Atlantic jackknife clam is much more difficult to find than it’s west coast cousin. It’s delicious steamed or grilled with a bit of herb oil and a squeeze of lemon, but it’s harder to work with than the Pacific razor. The shells are delicate and they need to be cleaned thoroughly. The best way is to soak them in salted water with either a handful of cornmeal or cracked black pepper, which acts as an irritant. The clams draw it in and expel it out with whatever sand may be lurking inside the shell. “It’s a good thing to do that with any clams,” says Cimarusti, especially anything wild.

Pacific Geoduck (Panopea generosa)

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“Of all the clams, Geoduck has the cleanest and truest flavor of the sea,” says Cimarusti. “I love, love, love them.” The extremely phallic-looking clam is native to western Canada and the Pacific Northwest and is the largest—and most expensive—clam, prized by seafood-loving chefs around the world.

Basically, a giant soft-shell clam, geoduck has two parts, the long trunk and the “belly” inside the shell. The siphon or trunk is most commonly served raw (known as mirugai in sushi and sashimi) or gently warmed. Like soft shell clams, cooks have to remove its covering by blanching it in boiling water for 10 seconds, shocking it in ice water, and sliding it off, before ripping the meat in half. The inner body meat has a stronger clam flavor and more typical clam texture, ideal for stir-fries and fragrant broths.

Because he’s so into it, we’ll let Cimarusti wax on about geoduck:

The texture is so remarkable, the most wonderful crunch-like water chestnuts with a distinctive snap between your teeth. The chew is beautiful; I can’t think of another seafood that has it. The flavor is incredible, very nutty, rich and super clean. If you have just a few very thin slices of geoduck with a couple of drops of lemon juice, to me, there’s almost nothing better or more satisfying. I can’t say enough good things about geoduckGeoduck for president!

Want to hone your clam-cooking skills? Check out these recipes.

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