Summertime is beach time. Whether you travel to the shore or a lake or creek, we all love to be near the water when the weather heats up. Maybe it’s the cooler air blowing off the surf or the refreshment of the occasional dip in the water, but we all crave beach time in summer. Growing up on the Connecticut coast, the only beach for me is the sea! Sure, lakes are nice but without salt and sand it just isn’t beach to me. And of course, beach time means beach food. My definition of beach food is great seafood – specifically, fried seafood. When I find a good fried seafood joint, I give it my love.
I love a great lobster roll or a bowl of chowdah as much as the next guy, it is all about the magic of fried seafood by the beach in summer. Fried seafood is a way of life in my family. This is what true New England people identify with. It’s what I can’t get anywhere else. It is what I still drive two hours for a half dozen times each summer. Sure, some of the places that serve high quality fried seafood are open year round, but there is nothing like eating it outside in summer, within proximity to or on the beach.
Let me explain how my love of fried seafood on the beach love affair began, and then we will get into wine choices and techniques.
When I was a little guy, my parents often went to Jimmie’s at Savin Rock for beach food supper during the summer. Savin Rock was in West Haven, Connecticut, about two miles from New Haven Harbor. It was right out of Happy Days, a mini Coney Island right with rides, amusements, a “Laff-in-the-dark” funhouse, hot rods, greasers and of course food. There were colorful cotton candy and lemon ice stands. And then there was Jimmie’s. The original Jimmie’s was an open air counter joint that specialized in footlong split hot dogs and the best fried seafood. I bet they served over 1000 guests a night in peak season. It is there that I had my first fried clam. Long before the lobster roll stole the stage, Jimmie’s served fried scallops, shrimp, flounder, clam strips, and belly clams on buttered split top hot dog rolls with tartar sauce.
It was here, and later at Chick’s, another Savin Rock beachfront Drive-In joint that closed in 2015 after a 65 year run, that I was gradually introduced to the magic of fried shellfish and ultimately belly clams, also known as “whole clams”. What is a belly clam? What we New Englander’s refer to as belly clams are whole fried soft shell, Ipswich or piss clams, the kind that are also used to make proper steamers. The name piss clams, or pissers, comes from the little spray of sea water that comes up from the sand where the clam has buried itself. When the tide is low, you can walk onto the mudflats and drop a brick, rock, or beer bottle on the packed greenish sand and watch for that little stream of water that squirts up. That is where the piss clam is hiding. Start digging and plan your dinner.
Belly clams are the entire clam, muscle strip and belly attached that are breaded and deep fried. They are an acquired taste and it took me more than a few tries to get into them. Most fried clams are what is known as clam strips. This is what is generally served when you order fried clams. They are slightly chewy, briny muscles from clams, breaded and fried. Sure, they are tasty with a mild ocean flavor but I call them entry level. Mostly, their popularity is about the breading. A good cracker meal breading could make anything taste delicious. The belly clam in contrast is intense. The rich sack of a belly which is attached to the strip is breaded and fried. Its interior ranges from golden gray to a dark greenish black like the color of the mudflats where it lives. It has a strong flavor, creamy and sometimes even a wee bit sandy.
Whole piss clams are to littlenecks as sea urchins are to lobster tail. The intense stuff, the good stuff. The stuff it takes b*lls to try but a serious love of food to become addicted to. I confess, I am an addict. To this day, whenever I get down anywhere on the New England shore in summertime, I seek out belly clams, either on a platter or on a roll. When I am on the coast I say skip the fine dining, give me a good belly clam fry.
My introduction to fried seafood was at Jimmie’s. My mother, father, and I were sitting in our two-toned Studebaker when I was about 5 years old. I was in the back seat with my plastic army guys, dawdling through my meal of a ketchup doused hot dog and crinkle cut fries. My father was eating his favorite, a fried bay scallop roll, and my mother had the fisherman’s platter with fried flounder, clams, scallops, oysters, fries, and milky sweet slaw. The food was served in red checkered paper boxes.
My mother Ro was driven to make me eat everything she did. I clearly remember the first time she implored me to try a fried clam that she had speared on the end of a two pronged flat wooden fork. My mouth shut like a steel trap.
“Just try it! It’s so good, you’re gonna love it” she pleaded.
No way I was letting that into my mouth. F*ck that. The car smelled like low tide. The aroma revolted me.
My first small step to seafood love eventually came the next summer back at Savin Rock. I was again in my backseat fort, and Ro offered me the rest of her fries and handed me her pressed paper boat that her seafood platter was served in. I began eating the last of the burnt ends of the fries from the bottom of the box. The entire crumby pile was drowned in ketchup. I inadvertently ate a little piece of golden brown breading that must have fallen off a clam strip. I immediately identified a new flavor. The slightly metallic perfume of the clam filled my mouth, even over the sweet and sour ketchup. I was a bit confused because I kind of liked the flavor even though I hated the smell so much. I went back for another small piece, coated with ketchup. I was being indoctrinated.
The following summer, when I was 7, I gave in and tried a full clam strip, with ketchup of course. And then, the following summer, I ordered my first actual clam roll. I was eight by then and well on my way to becoming the professional eater I am today. My mother was proud.
“I toldja” she said with both satisfaction and annoyance.
“Who knows better than me” she added.
It would be a couple of years later at Chick’s when I had my first clam belly. I was about 10 or 11. I was with my mother and her friend Adrienne. On their weekly “girlfriends night out” they sometimes brought me along to be the “gentleman”. We’d go out to eat and then after supper we would sometimes go to a movie or to an ice cream parlor for dessert. I opened the car doors for them, paid the check and even ordered the food. I was a gentleman in training. This evening I was sent into the open air counter at Chick’s to order the dinner to be eaten in the car. A Fisherman’s platter with belly clams for my mother Ro, fried shrimp platter for Adrienne, and a clam roll and fries for me. Ro was adamant that I made sure that she got belly clams, not strips on the Fisherman’s platter. I guess when I ordered my clam roll I forgot to specify “strips” for me and I got the whole belly clams too. Without noticing, I dug into my clam roll with the usual abandon. The clams were big, golden, crunchy, and creamy. The interior color of a few of the bigger ones put me off a bit, and I may have pulled off and discarded a few of the larger bellies, but I arrived. I knew. I was one of the big kids now.
The following summer, I went all in. I tried my first soft shell crab sandwich. A big fattie, fried until crunchy on a soft burger roll slathered with tartar sauce and slaw, it was like nothing I had ever eaten. First, I pulled off the crispy legs and gobbled them down fearlessly. When I got to the body filled with buttery green crab fat I hesitated, added more tartar sauce, and finished it off in two bites. It was strong, but I got the picture. Add this to my list of fried seafood favorites for life.
Now that you know how I became an experienced pro at enjoying fried seafood, let’s talk about what to drink with it. As a kid, it was a coke served in a wax-coated paper cup with crushed ice. That was the standard way of serving it. Then as I matured, I tried fried seafood with beer, and…meh. It’s ok. I know it is common, but for my taste I find the bitterness of hops, even from a light lager or pilsner to be overpowering. It doesn’t do the sweet and briny seafood the justice it deserves. Drinking beer with fried stuff also makes me feel too full, and who wants to be bloated on the beach? I opt for wine.
Let me clarify that wine is not normally sold at beachside food stands or on public beaches in the U.S. like it is in Europe. Most beaches in the U.S. don’t allow any alcohol and certainly don’t allow glass on the beach. So what to do? Unless you are lucky enough to have access to a private beach, your beach options are usually bad, like sports drinks, corn syrup-laden sodas, or plain water.
Here is my solution: PLEASE don’t tell the beach patrol on me…but I fill thermal water bottles with wine. I sneak wine in a water bottle or two and bring plastic cups, or get them at the snack bar. If you are eating outside at the fried fish joint, just bring your beach bag with the wine. Ask for a cup and pour discreetly. I’ve done it scores of times. So far, so good. Of course, we don’t drink wine to get drunk, but being civilized adults, we drink it to relax and create a better food and wine experience.
What wines do I pack for the beach you ask? Simple question with a simple answer; simple whites. In my opinion, the wine should be a background beverage. It should be cold, lower alcohol, go down easily and not make a grand statement. Remember, you will be baking in the sun all day so go easy. I love clean and easy white wines with just enough minerality to cleanse my palate. Big ripe wines like Pacific or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc are just too heady to pair with fried food, and too intense to drink while baking in the sun after lunch.
Tocai Friulano from Millbrook is always a good choice. Millbrook has been bottling its own Hudson Valley grown Tocai for decades and they are good at it. It has that perfect balance of fruit, flowers, and citrus that goes so well with fried seafood. Think of the Adriatic sea and there is Tocai Friulano.
Of course, there are many Mediterranean whites that are what I call “disappearing wine.” Once it is opened, it seems to disappear. These are kinds of wine that my friends in the Mediterranean drink every day. Remember for the beach, always chill it hard before you fill your thermos(es).
I recently enjoyed a fantastic Fritto Misto di Mare in Liguria with my son and we quaffed a couple of bottles of Cinque Terre Bianco made with Bosco grapes blended with just enough Vermentino. It has clean fruit and plenty of stone essence to dance with the shellfish. Speaking of Vermentino, I definitely recommend it, but stick with wines from Sardinia. They are easier drinking than some of the more structured Vermentinos from Tuscany.
Of course, if you read my work, you know how I feel about Sicilian whites. They are absolutely perfect with fried fish. Anyone who has ever enjoyed a plate of fried seafood on the beach in Sicily, knows that Grillo, Cataratto or Inzolia are all born to be quaffed at the beach with seafood. And trust me, they are all truly “disappearing wines”. Also, a light Trebbiano or Fiano from Italy, Moschofilero from Greece or Verdejo from Spain are also easy drinking wines and perfect pairings for fried fish. Lastly, let’s not forget Chenin Blanc, which is another favorite beach wine of ours. I tend to lean toward the dry South African Chenins myself, as they are easy going down but still have enough character to make it worth it.
Ultimately, although I have a definite predisposition for Sicily, my favorite beach wine to be poured from a thermos into a plastic cup is Vinho Verde from Portugal. It has just enough spritz and subtle salinity to creates a perfect extension of flavor with fried shellfish. Also, most are low alcohol ranging from 8-10% alcohol. After all, on a hot day at the beach, one must keep one’s wits.
There are obviously many more wines that fit my beach wine criteria, this list is just a start. Send me your favorites in the comments.
Visit https://ricorlando.com for info on my immersive Sicily Food and Culture Tours, Recipes, Pop Up Dinners and my seasoning and sauce line.