On Sunday afternoons in the late 1970s, our whole clan—aunts, uncles, cousins, my parents, siblings and I—would gather for family dinner at my Nana’s restaurant in Johnston, R.I. We’d always be seated to the left of the hostess stand in the dining room, a large room with brick walls, where even at midday, the lighting was dim. To brighten the space, the walls were decked with gilt-framed mirrors. Straw-clad Chianti fiascos (bottles), Italianate plaster statues and bunches of squishy plastic purple grapes and leafy plastic vines rounded out the décor, all in keeping with the restaurant’s name: The Vineyard.
These meals were all-afternoon affairs, course after course of Nana’s food served by her gregarious sisters, Aunt Dolores and Aunt Dot. We would sit around one long line of four-tops slid together, heavy wooden chairs pushed into place, the red-and-white-checkered tablecloths slick with oilcloth coating and topped with paper placemats.
Dinner always began with iceberg lettuce salad with house dressing–oil and vinegar with Italian herbs–followed by an assortment of appetizers such as fried ravioli, fried mozzarella sticks (served with marinara sauce), classic Rhode Island “stuffies,” and clams casino. We then had our choice of a main course with a side of pasta. We children typically chose chicken parmigiana or meatballs and spaghetti, while the adults selected more sophisticated fare–steak alla Mama, veal piccata or shrimp scampi.
My cousins and I drank maraschino cherry-garnished Shirley Temples, which we thought quite fancy. Between dinner and dessert we’d run to the other side of the restaurant, a lounge area with a stage, complete with glittery 1970s theater curtains, and we’d dance and sing there until our parents called us back to the table for cannoli and Neapolitan ice cream.
A woman with a big, contagious laugh, even bigger bleached blonde hair, and long, perfectly manicured nails, Nana cooked during the day, then changed into nice clothes and heels and greeted her customers as they entered the restaurant each night. The restaurant became very popular, not just for the food, but also for the burlesque shows held on that stage with the glittery curtains that we children loved so much, a fact that was kept from us until we were well into adulthood.
Nana had been a young bride, and in her mid-30s, she left my grandfather. In leaving him, she left all five of her children, too. Soon after the divorce, she married my step-grandfather, Lang, and together they opened The Vineyard. Our Sunday dinners were a way for her to reconnect with her children and grandchildren, but you could never sense that weight while the dinners were underway. This secret, too, was kept hidden from us children.
As long as she was in business, Nana’s sisters worked in the restaurant, as did her children in turns. Nana and Lang relocated the restaurant to Florida in the early 1980s, then returned to the Northeast in the mid-1980s, when they opened The Villa Rosa in our hometown. The Villa, as it was known, was always packed, and my nana could still be found in the kitchen during the day and out greeting customers as they entered the restaurant through the bar area at night.
The burlesque shows didn’t travel to the new space, but we certainly did. Dinner at The Villa was always a treat, and de rigueur for birthdays and other special occasions, with Aunt Delores and Aunt Dot delivering us soda instead of Shirley Temples as we got older.
From childhood on, my standard order was an appetizer of clams casino, followed by chicken parm with a side of ziti (always slightly overcooked, as was the way back then) and Nana’s thin red sauce.
Nana passed away when I was in high school. During my senior year, I managed to replicate her thin red sauce without her recipe. It was a victory, both in building my confidence in the kitchen and, more importantly, in keeping her memory alive.
As I’ve gotten older, my red sauce recipe has evolved and no longer resembles Nana’s. It is chunkier, heartier and I try to avoid overcooked ziti, preferring to serve my pasta al dente.
Likewise, my version of chicken parm is only loosely related to hers. She never used panko bread crumbs – we’re talking about the 70s and 80s after all, and there was no fennel seed in her breading.
The one dish of my Nana’s restaurant triumvirate that I had never attempted to make at home was clams casino. Every version I’d had elsewhere failed to measure up to hers, which were dense and buttery. No matter how my tastes changed, only Nana’s clams casino would do.
Recently, I decided to give it a shot. At first, I tried to make the stuffing with plain breadcrumbs, which I seasoned with freshly ground pepper and minced parsley. I stirred in white wine and lemon juice and a little melted butter, topped the clams and baked away. After digging into the light crumb topping, I turned to my husband and said, “I bet she used Ritz crackers. These are good, but they aren’t the same as hers. Hers were more dense. And more buttery.”
It turns out that one of my aunts had Nana’s recipe, which she sent me and which was somewhat helpful. At least my Ritz suspicion was confirmed: halve the clams, top with Ritz, Parm, garlic, parsley, butter and lemon juice. Put bacon on them, bake at 350 until done,” it reads.
This is how all recipes are communicated in our family — ingredients and temperature only. No measurements. No method. No timing. (I am sure we are not alone.)
Armed with this incomplete nformation, I started the clams casino quest again. Ritz cracker crumbs, garlic, quickly sautéed in melted butter, pecorino Romano cheese in place of the Parmigiano, parsley and lemon juice.
“Holy cow, I think I’ve unlocked the secret to all stuffed seafood throughout all of Rhode Island,” I exclaimed to my husband as the stuffing came together that first time, our house filling with the familiar scent of Nana’s restaurant kitchen. Hyperbole, yes – as discussed, no other clams casino has matched hers – but this seems to be the mother stuffing for many a stuffed shrimp I’ve enjoyed over the years (and with the addition of chopped clams, for stuffed quahogs as well).
We don’t gather for big family meals every Sunday any more, but in my house we are enjoying batch after batch of clams casino, just like Nana’s.
Community Kitchen is an occasional column of stories and recipes from AFR members. We encourage you to join the community and share your story. Email Community Kitchen editor Domenica Marchetti at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clams casino are simply littleneck clams stuffed with seasoned breadcrumbs and bacon and baked in the oven. They are said to have originated in the kitchen of the Little Casino hotel, at Narragansett Pier in Kingston, R.I., though there are disputes to that claim. In any case, they remain popular in restaurants throughout Rhode Island and New England. AFR community member and cookbook author Amy McCoy says she has eaten more than her fair share of these savory stuffed clams--but none that are better than those her Nana made at The Vineyard, her Rhode Island restaurant. McCoy recreated her late Nana's recipe and shares it here.
- 12 littleneck clams, shells scrubbed well
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 garlic cloves, minced (about 1 1/2 teaspoons)
- 1 cup Ritz cracker crumbs (see Note)
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- 1/4 packed cup flat-leaf parsley leaves, minced (measure before mincing)
- Freshly squeed juice of 1 lemon (3 to 4 tablespoons)
- 2 slices bacon, each slice cut crosswise into 6 pieces
- Lemon wedges for serving
Preheat the oven to 350ºF.
In a large steamer basket, steam the littlenecks over boiling water until their shells open, 5 to 7 minutes. Allow the clams to cool slightly.
Remove the empty half of the shell: Hold a clam, open sides up, and twist the empty half toward you until it breaks loose, then discard it. Be careful to clean any wayward shards of shell from the clam. When removing the empty shells from the clams, it’s helpful to have two bowls at the ready: one to hold the clams while they cool after being removed from the steamer basket, the other for empty shells. If there is liquid under the littleneck in its shell, drain it out. Place the littlenecks in their shells in a large baking dish or on a rimmed baking sheet.
Melt the butter in a medium sauté pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and sauté until just softened, 1 to 2 minutes. In a medium bowl, stir together the cracker crumbs, cheese and parsley, then season with pepper – there’s no need to add salt to this dish, you’ll have all you need from the brine of the sea. Pour the melted butter and garlic into the cracker crumb mix and add the lemon juice. Stir until all of the wet ingredients are incorporated into the dry.
Generously top the littlenecks with the crumb topping – it’s helpful to make clam-sized clumps of topping in your hand, then place them over the clams. Place a slice of bacon atop each stuffed clam. Bake the clams for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the bacon is cooked and the crumb topping is golden brown.
Though it’s hardly necessary, in the name of 1970s Italian-American tradition, serve them forth with a wedge of lemon.
NOTE: To make Ritz cracker crumbs, process the crackers in a food processor fitted with the metal blade until reduced to fine crumbs. One sleeve (32 crackers) yields approximately 1 cup crumbs.