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CAPE ANN, Mass. -- This windswept New England coast is to fried clams what Naples is to pizza.
So when my husband, Bob Wolke, a connoisseur of fried clams, recently needed a clam fix -- bad, real bad -- we headed to New England to find the best fried clams there are.
We chose to visit the Cape in early October, timed to be post-tourist and pre-leaf-peeper. Off we flew to Boston on a Monday morning, rented a car and drove north along the coast to our hotel base in Gloucester. From there we drove the short distances to Essex and Ipswich, absolute ground zero for soft-shell clams, fried or otherwise.
In three days of touring, we made the rounds of the five most famous clam shacks -- a full Ginsberg of clams, onion rings and chowder.
Here's what we looked for in the best fried clams: They should be locally dug, freshly shucked and sweet with freshness. Bob prefers big-bellied clams, that contain flavorful, juicy, algae-loaded stomachs. Their light coating should be wheat or corn flour, and if the cooking oil is at the proper temperature, the clams will be crisp and nutty, not greasy.
Bob grew up in Brooklyn, but his parents came from Lynn, Mass., and he spent many summers at the beach in Swampscott with cousins. His favorite childhood memories include fried clams at Doan's, a mom-and-pop clam shack in Swampscott. It's long gone, but we stopped for old time's sake.
First, Doan's became Del's, and now it's the take-out window of Red Rock Bistro, a beachfront seafood restaurant. There, a board lists the full coastal menu of lobsters, clams, sandwiches, fries, chowder and ice cream. We sat on the patio that used to be Doan's, and we crossed our fingers because clams are subject to supply, weather and seasonal conditions.
Red Rock Bistro, 141 Humphrey St. at Redington, Swampscott. 1-781-595-1414.
Salem (side trip)
Every day is Halloween in the witch's city. We took a tourist day to explore the House of the Seven Gables and the waterfront shops. Ye Olde Pepper Companie, billing itself as America's oldest candy company, specializes in rock-hard Gilbralters and Blackjacks, both discouraged by dentists the world over. In Salem, there's a witch museum, a dungeon museum and a haunted neighborhood. A must-go is the Peabody Essex Museum with its performances and artist demonstrations. It's in the pedestrian shopping mall, where anything emblazoned with black cats, spooks, skeletons or bloodshot eyeballs will sell. The city fathers boast that not one witch was ever burned in Salem. All smoke and no fire.
At day's end, we hobbled over the cobblestone streets to the venerable Hawthorne Hotel for a local beer in the tavern. We lounged in comfy wing chairs and sampled the brews of Ipswich Brewing Co. that include ale, dark ale, oatmeal stout and porter.
Overnight, we checked out the Salem Inn, a historic landmark, one of the Inn's three restored historic homes. It's convenient and comfy with fireplaces, a courtyard and a good breakfast, but there's hardly a plumb line in the house.
Salem Inn, 7 Summer St., Salem; 1-978-741-0680.
The tiny town of Essex is home to three excellent clam shacks: Essex Seafood, Woodman's and J.T. Farnham's, all within two miles of one another. I suggest you go to Essex Seafood first, not because its clams are No. 1 in our book. But because it looks like a bit of a dump and you could easily say, "Nah, let's keep driving." The clams are dug, shelled every morning and the siphons (or "necks") are cut off. (That's the part that can sometimes be as chewy as a rubber band.) Then they are soaked in evaporated milk, dredged in just a bit of corn and white flours and fried in lard. Yes, lard. They are crunchy with a golden coating and sweet. Heaven.
Another time, I might want the cod cheek boat, the clam bake or a lobster, which actually is its real specialty. Our lunch bill was $55.
Essex Seafood, 143R Eastern Ave., Essex: 1-978-768-7233; open year-round, seven days a week. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Woodman's of Essex
The story goes that on July 3, 1916, "Chubby" Woodman fried up some clams at the suggestion of a friend. The next day, Chub sold them at the Fourth of July parade where they were an instant success. Woodman's today is the Big Kahuna in Essex and far from a shack. It's on the main drag and is usually crowded, even during the week. Energetic marketing, a liquor license, lots of booths, huge lobsters, textbook perfect chowder, and clams fried in lard make this our bronze medal winner. Alas, the clams can be sandy, the cooks don't cut the necks off, and during the rush, clams are a tad greasy, probably from the demands on the fryer.
Woodman's of Essex, 121 Main St., Essex; 1-978-768-6057, open year-round.
Antiques Roadshow (side trip)
We saw not even one McDonald's franchise, but every town, village and one-light neighborhood supports a Dunkin' Donuts. They were founded in 1950 in Quincy, Mass. The one in Essex is adjacent to Woodman's and midway in the string of 35 antiques stores and restoration shops. Essex is a collector's, dealer's and decorator's destination, with furnishings, art and accessories ranging from American and international antiques and, more our speed, early attique. We spent way too much time in Main Street Antiques, neb-nosing over its four floors of flea marketish stuff.
35 Shops, restaurants and points of interest, Route 133, Essex.
Farnham's is an actual shack where you can still "eat in the rough." Sit outside at a picnic table overlooking the Essex salt marsh enjoying clams that might have been harvested right here before making the short journey to the fryer inside. Clams here are browner than most, probably from a few extra seconds in the fat. If you haven't indulged in fries or onion rings yet, this would be a good place to sample them.
J.T. Farnham's 88 Eastern Ave., Essex; 1-978-768-6643; early March to Thanksgiving.
"They that go down to the sea in ships." Is there anyone who hasn't seen sculptor Leonard F. Craske's Memorial to the Gloucester fisherman? The statue is positioned so that the fisherman at the ship's wheel is looking out over Gloucester Harbor, a port long ago the home of Portuguese ship captains and fishermen. An amazing sight.
We hoped to try the classic dish, Pork and Clams, on the Portuguese menu at Azorean restaurant, but never made it. We did love the Portuguese linguica (ling-GWEE-sah) sausage on the excellent breakfast menu at the whistle-clean Atlantis Oceanfront Motor Inn. Cross the motel's grass strip and the two-lane road and you are smack up against the Atlantic Ocean lapping at huge coastal rocks. A sidewalk ribbons the coastline, making a brisk walk after breakfast the best start to a calorie-laden day.
Azorean Restaurant, 133 Washington St, Gloucester; 1-978-283-5500.
Atlantis Oceanfront Motor Inn, 125 Atlantic Road, Gloucester; 1-978-283-0014.
The Box takes second place for crisp, crunchy, delicious fried clams. It's on the outskirts of Ipswich, but there's no blowing past the Clam Box because it looks like a whimsical white clam box, open at the top. This is the only place where you will see the sign: "Big belly clams on request." The cooks double-dip the clams. Any extra coating drops into the first fry vat. The clams finish cooking in a second vat. The restaurant even halts frying for 15 minutes every afternoon to change the oil so it is clean and clean-tasting all day. On the way back to Gloucester, we stopped at Russell Orchards Farm and Winery for a glass of cold cider and a cider doughnut, and bought a few crisp apples for the road.
Clam Box, 246 High St., Ipswich: 1-978-356-9707; mid-February to early December.
Russell Orchards, Farm and Winery, 143 Argilla Road, off Route 133 in Essex.
We returned the car and were in Boston's Logan Airport terminal by 10:30 a.m., three hours early for our flight. The Legal Seafoods restaurant is in Terminal C. The chain has about 35 eateries mostly in the Boston-New England corridor, but a couple in D.C. and three in Florida. They deliver a good product, but after our nothing-but-the-best binge, we wondered how Legal would compare.
Bob and I looked at each other and said, "You don't suppose ... just one last clam?" We grilled the hostess before committing. She said, "Yes, the clams are fresh, not frozen; yes, they are from Ipswich; yes, the chef will look for big bellies. They're fried in canola oil."
The verdict: Nice fat bellies, a bit greasy, a tad chewy, but quite good overall. "I don't care what anybody says about chain restaurants," Bob said. "These are terrific." And after six fried clam meals in 3 days, that's saying something.
Marlene Parrish can be reached at 412-481-1620 or email@example.com .