I grew up in north-east Massachusetts, in Haverhill, about 35 miles or so north of Boston. Nearby cities included Ipswich, a place identified with whole belly fried clams. Traditionally, they were served in paper cartons, or cozily ensconced in a hot dog roll. In that part of New England, as I have explained to doubting grandchildren, in “the olden days”, there were no Burger Kings or Mickey D’s; so when we needed a snack or on a date, we munched on clam rolls or lobster rolls; the latter being large chunks of lobster meat in a light mayo dressing.
All of this is a preface to noting a favorite restaurant in St. Petersburg, the Casual Clam. That restaurant serves up authentic whole belly clams, fried to a perfect golden hue and accompanied by a fantastic spicy cocktail sauce that, when a bit of horseradish is added, brings tears. Both clam rolls and platters are available, the latter being served with a side of corn, slaw, fries or a veggie. As a transplanted New Englander, the Casual Clam is as welcome as a visit to the Clam Box in Ipswich or Woodman’s in Essex, Massachusetts, where the fried clam was invented, or so the legend goes.
If one visits the Casual Clam, there is a choice of eating inside the restaurant or sitting on the covered outdoor patio, which I prefer. It’s true that the view from the outdoor patio is one of traffic on Ninth Street North which could never be confused with the Blue Ridge Parkway.
In any event, the best starting point in a meal would be a cup – not a bowl because that would be too filling – of either the Clam Chowder or the Gumbo. Please note that I did not refer to the former as “New England” clam chowder as opposed to “New York” clam chowder, a tomato-based soup that, while good in its own right, is not “clam chowder” to a purist. The chowder is thick and rich, a spoon being able to stand upright in the cup. The Gumbo is just as much a treat, with large pieces of crab and shrimp in a spicy red liquid. Very spicy, so have the cold beer at hand.
While TLJ and I nearly always order fried clams, the Casual Clam offers other treats, shrimp, grouper, oysters, scallops and haddock as well as a number of pasta dishes. I have had what was probably the best blackened mahi sandwich I have ever had. One of our sons-in-law prefers the grouper sandwich. In both cases, the filets are far bigger than the roll! The mahi and grouper, as the haddock, salmon and tuna steak, are served blackened, broiled, grilled or fried.
(In Florida, the dolphin is a fish as well as the mammal, a wholly different creature. In order to eliminate the concern that folks were eating Flipper, the term “mahi” or “mahi-mahi” was coined to refer to the fish.) A year or two ago, a minor scandal arose when the state of Florida accused a number of restaurants, including the Casual Clam, of serving a less expensive fish and passing it off as “grouper”. This issue has been corrected or resolved, although if one is really desirous of the delicate and magnificent flavor of true grouper, it would be ordered only broiled and served with a bit of lemon and butter, but that’s a personal issue!
The servings are large and, while not inexpensive, are good values. When accompanied by a frosty mug or two of ice-cold beer, a dinner for two would be under $25 or $30, including a tip for the very busy, knowledgeable and pleasant wait staff.
Because the restaurant is not in the immediate Lutz area, Joan and I limit our visits to when we are in St. Petersburg, perhaps before or after a Tampa Bar Rays baseball game at Tropicana Field down the street.
We have never been sorry!