One of the great Italian-American restaurant treats can be baked clams, but so often this dish comes to the table with fatal problems. More often than not, the clams are rubbery. And, more often than not, the breading is unattractively dense, with nary a lick of clam flavor. The following recipe rectifies all. By chopping the clams, and cooking them quickly, you help them to retain the more pleasing texture of raw clams. And by covering them with a thin mantle of homemade bread crumbs, you avoid the gunky quality that usually comes with the territory. To my taste, the benefits are maximized when you cook the clams very quickly indeed; after just 2 minutes under the broiler, the clams are still slightly raw, brimming with flavor. For me, they’re perfect! You may like them cooked a little more, or, if your broiler’s weak, need them cooked a little more. It all depends on your broiler and your taste.
Italian Baked Clams
(variations also known as Clams Casino)
1 cup homemade breadcrumbs
¼ cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
¼ cup finely minced parsley leaves
4 large cloves garlic, finely minced
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
36 cherrystone clams (each one about 2½” across)
4½ teaspoons fresh lemon juice (plus lemon wedges for garnish, if desired)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1. Combine breadcrumbs, Parmigiano-Reggiano, parsley, garlic and olive oil in a bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Reserve.
2. Scrub clams under running cold water. Shuck each one with a clam knife, reserving clam juice for another use. Reserve 36 half-shells. Cut the meat of each clam into 8 pieces, and put in a small bowl. Toss with lemon juice.
3. Divide the chopped clams evenly among the 36 shells. Top each shell with 2 teaspoons of bread crumb mixture. Then drizzle the butter evenly over the crumbs, about ½ teaspoon of butter per clam. Pat down lightly with your fingers.
4. Place clams on a sheet pan, and cook under a broiler until breading is golden brown. If the clams are too close to the broiler, the crumbs will brown before the clams get cooked. If they’re too far, the clams may cook too much before the crumbs brown. Experiment, and find the perfect distance from your broiler. In mine, they take about 2 minutes to cook and brown perfectly. Serve with lemon wedges, if desired.
And the wine…
Here’s a case where I prefer the food to stand out; it’s tough for a wine to top the taste of clams and garlic. But what will work is a light, refreshing, simple wine—preferably from Italy to line up with the dish!—balanced, served extremely cold. I mean it: extremely cold. The other proviso: don’t sip it, guzzle it!
A great choice for this dish is this unusual bubbly rosé from Umbria: Vino Spumante Rosé Brut from Castello delle Regine. Castello delle Regine is pretty new to wine-making. In 1994, Paolo Nodari, then a lawyer from Milan, happened across the land in Valle delle Regine, between Terni and Narni. Since then Paolo and his wife, Livia Colantonio, have created a farm, a cellar, a restaurant, and 200 acres of vineyards. Those vineyards, under the supervision of winemaker Franco Bernabei, contain old clones of Sangiovese Grosso, Merlot, plus other local varietals, and are flourishing in the area’s clay soils. This Rosé Brut is a pretty, light pink-orange. Simple pear on the nose. Just off-dry, decent acid. The subtle pear plays well on the palate, with a good foamy feel…and no icky finish, as you so often get in inexpensive sparkling rosés!