My grandfather was a Sicilian fisherman, and I spent my summers in Rhode Island with him pulling up lobster traps and clamming along the shoreline. Every weekend we had a clambake, sometimes on the beach and sometimes in my aunt’s backyard — a briny broth loaded with steamers (soft-shelled clams), Maine lobster, red potatoes, corn on the cob, and hot dogs with a snappy casing.
During the winters here in California where lobster was rare and expensive and steamers were nonexistent, my mom made cioppino with the abundance of fresh Dungeness crab, often purchased right off the piers of Santa Cruz or Half Moon Bay. Unlike the clear broth of a clambake, she made her cioppino with a traditional tomato sauce redolent with garlic and fresh parsley, and she added mussels, shrimp, and calamari.
For all the years I enjoyed both dishes equally, I never thought about how easy it would be to combine the two — until a recent visit to The Old Clam House, San Francisco’s oldest restaurant (serving in the same location since 1861), where I discovered their “clam bake cioppino.” My dining companions and I ordered the family size ($89.95), which arrived at the table in a gargantuan, rustic cast-iron pot big enough to easily feed six to seven people (they also offer an individual portion for $25.95 and a pot for two priced at $49.95). Our server removed the lid to reveal a steaming tomato sauce bursting with fresh clams, mussels, crab, shrimp, calamari, and fish filets nestled with potatoes, carrots, onions, corn on the cob, and black olives. The sauce had a spicy, garlicky kick but didn’t overwhelm the delicate seafood. The shrimp, mussels, calamari, and clams were fresh and plump, cooked just until done, and the crab was sweet and meaty. If you’re a clambake or a cioppino lover (or both, like me), it’s well worth a jaunt across town.
The Old Clam House: 299 Bayshore Boulevard, 415-826-4880, theoldclamhousesf.com; daily 11 a.m.–11 p.m.