Linguine White Clam Sauce with Gary Puckett and the Union Gap
This dish was one of my uncle Oscar’s favorites. He loved to cook this sauce, and his version was about as good as it gets.
A few years ago, I was having brunch with Unc. He lived in a big house in this great section of Baltimore, Maryland, called Guilford.
As we were sitting on the outdoor patio, drinking Bloody Marys that sunny Sunday afternoon, I commented on the watch he was wearing. It was a Movado, the one with the plain black face and the big diamond at the top of the dial, where the “12” usually is. It was one good-looking watch, and I said so.
He took it off his wrist and said, “I want you to have it.” He gave it to me.
I told him that I didn’t want it. Unc insisted. I resisted. This went back and forth for a few minutes, then he screamed, “Take the fuckin’ watch!”
Oscar cursed a lot. So did my Dad, his brother. Funny, it never sounded really vulgar coming from them. Just seemed kind of natural. They were tough guys, but well-educated and eloquent. They used the “F” word a lot.
I took the fucking watch. You don’t say no to a guy like Unc — it could be lethal. I put it on my wrist. Wow. That was one beautiful watch. I figured I’d take the watch and give it back to Oscar the next day, after the Bloody Marys had worn off. It was way too expensive a watch to keep.
I had a date that night – a girl I’d had my eye on for quite some time. She worked in a club where my band played, and, for what seemed like years, I’d wanted to ask her out. I had a big crush. I finally got up the nerve to ask her out. I did. She said yes.
And I had a new watch to wear on that first date.
I wasn’t trying to impress her with the watch. Any woman who is impressed by a watch isn’t the kind of woman who’d want to hang around a guy like me.
What I was hoping would be impressive was the fact that my uncle had given me the watch off his wrist.
I took this girl to my friend’s restaurant — an elegant fine-dining place with a grand piano and a small dance floor. They had a guy who played piano and sang Sinatra, and you could wine, dine, and dance, Rat Pack style.
The food was great, Italian stuff. The bar was cool. The lighting, the decor, the ambiance was really kinda sexy. My uncle Oscar used to go there. So did a lot of successful Baltimore Italian guys who looked like they were in the Mafia.
And maybe they were.
The waitresses – dressed in black bowties, white shirts, and black vests – would stand inconspicuously in the shadows, hands clasped behind their backs, keeping their eyes on the room. All someone had to do was make a hand gesture, and a waitress would be bounding across the room like an Olympic gymnast doing the floor routine.
If you got up to go to the bathroom, or have a dance, when you came back, your napkin would be miraculously folded into some kind of Origami sculpture. That’s the kind of place it was.
My date and I sat down at the bar and ordered drinks. We clinked glasses, she saw the watch and said, “That’s a great watch.” I thanked her, and then told her the story about Unc giving me the watch off his wrist.
She seemed more impressed by the watch, than by the fact that Oscar gave it to me right off his wrist.
Then I asked her what her favorite band was. She didn’t hesitate, “Gary Puckett and the Union Gap.”
Gary Puckett and the Union Gap? I knew who they were. I remembered their song, “Young Girl”, whose first line is “Young Girl, get out of my mind, my love for you is way out of line” which is a line that if sung today, might get you thrown in jail, let alone be a big hit.
I had an Ex who hated the word “hate.” She’d say “least favorite” instead. She turned out to be my least favorite Ex.
Gary Puckett and the Union Gap are one of my least favorite bands. I mean, think of all the bands in the world – Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, the Stones, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, U2, Nirvana, the Who, Queen, Pink Floyd, The Supremes, The Temptations, Sly and the Family Stone, the Ohio Players, Funkadelic–and you’re going with Gary Puckett and the Union Gap?
That’s what was going through my mind as I sat there at the bar having a drink with this gorgeous girl who I had such a crush on.
“What time is it?” she asked.
I smiled and looked down at my watch with the big diamond and told her.
She asked me again about five minutes later. I told her. Five minutes later, same thing. It was kind of cute, the first 20 or 30 times she asked me what time it was.
I was kinda glad when we finally sat down for dinner. She asked me what time it was. Again. I smiled and looked down at my watch. The glass that covered the face was gone. The two hands were gone—the big one and the little one. The black face with the big diamond was gone. I was staring at a bunch of gears…that weren’t moving.
I took the broken watch off my wrist and said, “Let’s not worry about time. Let’s just enjoy this moment.” I put what was left of the watch in my jacket pocket.
When my date excused herself to go to the bathroom, I dove underneath the table. The waitresses came bounding over, thinking I was having a seizure, or choking to death.
When I told them what happened, they helped me look. There were more lighters underneath that table than during a slow song at an Elton John concert.
One of the waitresses alerted us that my date was on her way back from the bathroom, and they jumped back into position, and I got out from under the table.
The rest of the evening was nice if uneventful, except that every time my date would go to the bathroom, everyone from the busboys to the hostess was looking on the floor for the missing pieces of my watch.
We had dinner, had a drink and a dance, and then I took her home.
We never went out again. I mean, she was a nice person, kind of sweet and funny. And gorgeous.
I hate to admit it, but the Gary Puckett and the Union Gap thing bothered me.
After I dropped her off, I went back to the restaurant. Nobody had found anything. I pulled the broken watch out of my jacket pocket and looked at it again. No glass. No hands. No face. No huge diamond.
I wasn’t looking forward to telling my Uncle about the watch. He was a very understanding man, but he also had a temper. One time, Oscar got pissed off at his uncle, who had accused Oscar–who was a doctor–of not taking such great medical care of his wife. Oscar threw a glass at the guy.
Lucky he missed. He hit the coffee table instead. Unc threw the glass so hard, that years later, when I was having the table refinished, the shards were so deeply embedded in the table top, that they couldn’t even sand them out.
And I was thinking about that glass when I called Oscar that morning. I told Unc that I had broken the incredibly expensive diamond Movado watch he’d so generously given me.
He started laughing. Really hard.
Then he told me that he’d bought the watch on the streets of New York City for 10 bucks.
LINGUINE WITH WHITE CLAM SAUCE
There’s nothing like a little linguine with white clam sauce after your uncle has just played a huge joke on you.
Use the smallest clams you can find. Oscar sometimes used vongole veraci, tiny little clams from Italy the size of a thumbnail.
I used wild Manila clams, about the size of a quarter. A few months ago, I did a show at a club called Spaghettini in Seal Beach, California. My brother and his wife had come in from Arizona for the concert. The day after the show, my brother wanted me to cook some clam sauce, so I searched and found fresh Manila clams in a wild seafood store deep in the heart of Cambodia Town, a neighborhood a few miles from Seal Beach. The clams were wild and fresh and looked and smelled wonderful.
Whatever clams you use, soak them in ice water for a few hours, or overnight. This is to get rid of the grit, to let the clams purge themselves of their sand. The smaller the clam, the less grit and sand.
Cleaning the clams can be a pain. But that’s one of the keys to this recipe – you have to clean your clams. Pour the clams and the ice water they’ve been soaking in into a colander. Rinse them off and scrub each one with a vegetable brush. Repeat.
Whenever Oscar made clam sauce, he always mentioned the special ingredient my Mom had told him about. Oscar loved my Mom.
It was my Mom who suggested to Oscar that he put two anchovies in the sauce.
To some people eating anchovies is like eating a sweaty eyebrow.
But when you add two anchovies in the beginning of this sauce, and mash them up, it really lends a great flavor. Just don’t let anybody see you do it, and don’t tell anybody about it. Like my Dad used to say, “Nobody gets in trouble by keeping their mouth shut.”
6 dozen small clams, the smallest you can find
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced (about 2 tablespoons)
Crushed red pepper (I start off with ¼ teaspoon)
1 cup clam juice
¼ cup white wine
2 dozen or so grape tomatoes, yellow or red or both, cut in half, seeds squeezed out
A handful of Italian flat leaf parsley, chopped (¼ cup)
Here We Go…
Rinse the clams one final time in cold water.
Start your pasta water boiling on the highest heat.
Put the olive oil in a large pan. Put the heat on medium.
Add the crushed red pepper and the sliced garlic, and cook until the garlic is pale gold, a few minutes. Don’t burn the garlic!
Add the anchovies and mash them with the back of a wooden spoon ‘til they disintegrate.
Add the clam juice and the white wine. Turn the heat on high.
When the sauce comes to a boil, reduce it for a minute or so. Turn the heat to medium-low.
Add the clams to the sauce.
After a couple of minutes, take the cover off, stir, put the cover back on.
When the clams open up, the sauce is done.
Throw out any unopened clams. This is important. Unopened clams are bad clams. No bad clams!
When your pasta water has boiled, toss in a few tablespoons of kosher salt, and add a pound of linguine. Cook according to the instructions on the box. Two minutes before it’s supposed to be ready, check the pasta. Take a piece, and bite through it. If it’s chalky in the center it’s not done. Check every 2 minutes, until the pasta is not chalky or chewy. The pasta might take longer than the instructions.
When the pasta is al dente (firm to the bite), drain and add it to the sauce. Drizzle with a touch of olive oil, and toss. Add about half of the clam sauce to the pasta and toss gently.
Dish it up! Put a small amount of pasta—about a handful—on a plate, and top off with a ladle of the clam sauce. Garnish with parsley, and serve it up.