After a short walk from the subway, the expanse of sky expands and the bay appears; fishing boats are tied to docks. Then there’s the fish shack itself, the neon red lobster sign glowing out over the sidewalk. One could think they’re in a small seaside town. But it’s not really a fish shack, and this isn’t a small town. It’s Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, and the fish shack is Randazzo’s Clam Bar.
“Mouthwatering” is a word used for many things, but it’s actually the sensation that happens as soon as I enter the place. It’s the aroma of red sauce with the specific way very fresh seafood smells. Elena, the fifth-generation member of the family who still owns and runs the place, is at a table in the back with her cousin Mike.
“We all grew up behind the counter here, in the kitchen,” says Mike. “It’s kind of our heritage. The way it was, our grandmother—there’s a picture of her up there on the right —had four children. If we go back to when this all started, the actual clam bar part of it, it was 1959. But way before that in the ’30s, my great-grandfather had a fish market. That’s when it really started. He came from Italy. We’re Napolitano.”
Elena smiles, and says, “My son was here earlier.” Mike laughs and adds, “He gets behind the counter, he comes out with flour all over him. He took my order one day, asked me what I wanted . . .what is he, 4, maybe 5?”
Elena grew up in the neighborhood and still lives here. “Sundays are my favorite memory, because I’d go to my other grandmother’s house, who lives around the block, and we’d come here after,” she recalls. “As soon as you’d come around the corner we’d run to the door, run in, and there’s the food, and the smell, just the smell. I could smell it from my house, when they were making the sauce . . .”
“Anyone can make fried calamari,” Mike says, “but it depends on what kind of sauce you prepare with it. We’re initially known for the sauce. The recipe is from Elena’s great great grandmother, Rosie. It’s unique—I mean, obviously, it’s a family recipe, and it’s consistent. I think that’s the key, that there’s consistency in how you prepare the food, there’s consistency in the people who actually prepare it—we have people who’ve worked here for 40 years, other people who’ve been cooking here for over 30 years, you know? So the consistency is there.”
The restaurant buys local seafood as much as possible. “We’ve been buying from the same vendor all these years. Getting the clams out from Blue Point, Long Island, or Fire Island. Same vendors, all these years. My grandmother was the same way. It didn’t matter what the price was, they’re going to buy the same product because it’s what the customers are looking for,” she says. “Initially, it started with six items. It was raw clams, baked clams, fried calamari, fried shrimps, scungilli, mussels—those are the staple items when it first started. It’s evolved now to be pretty much a full restaurant menu.”
It’s always difficult for me to choose what to eat here because of the delicious aromas that constantly fill the air. It makes it hard to think. I feel like I’m in love, not with a person but with the idea of how the food will taste. Elena and Mike suggest “a nice cup of lobster bisque, spaghetti with shrimp sauce is always good. We have a dish on the menu called Burnt Chicken; it’s not really burnt, but it’s marinated and the flavoring in there, that is great—you can’t go wrong.” And of course, the calamari!
I’m trying to get the recipe for the sauce, but that’s not going to happen. Elena laughs. “The chef makes it. He’s probably only the one man that can do it. It’s a one-man process. People know parts of it, but he’s the only one that knows the whole thing.” What’s next? “The future is to mirror the past,” is Elena and Mike’s answer. “And to keep the traditions going and maybe expand to having another location or other locations. This is home base. This is the mothership. Our grandparents started this on this block. It’s been 85 years! At one point, in the early ’80s, we had five businesses on this block. We had a restaurant, we had a clam bar, there’s a smaller version of this, we had a fish store, live fish—they used to bring in the fish right off the boats, a lobster mart that sold specifically lobsters, and even a dessert place! It’s a lot of history.”