August 9, 2010 | BITE: My Journal

Brooklyn: On and Off the Boardwalk

We find a free table next to Nathan's Take Out Counter. Photo: Steven Richter

        We’re headed for Coney Island. I figure we’ll start at Nathan’s, wallow in clams on the half shell, grab a couple of dogs and then settle somewhere for an old-fashioned red sauce Italian wallow. Got a list of recommendations from restaurant guru Ed Schoenfeld. Totonno’s for pizza. Fiorentino’s Ristorante on Avenue U for Italian.

Just a scattered crowd competing for attention on a balmy Wednesday. Photo: Steven Richter

        Amazing how quiet it is on an August Wednesday night in Coney Island. All it takes is twice around the parking strip next to Nathan’s to inherit a space.  In the adjacent car, a couple sits surrounded by take-out boxes. Peter angles our car not to hit their open door.

        “Thanks for saving us the space,” says our friend Penny, “But I’m upset that you’re smoking.”

        The woman smiles sheepishly. “I’m so guilty,” she says, inhaling. “And I’m pregnant too. I’m so bad.”

        “And the baby is due tomorrow,” says her guy behind the wheel.

Good news, if true. Nathan's franks are practically diet fodder. Photo: Steven Richter

        “Well, we tried,” says Penny, going off to claim a table on Nathan’s outdoor “terrace,” while Peter queues up at the hot dog station. I scope out the drill in the seafood area. It seems you line up to pay first, then collect your clams around the corner at the shucking stand. I flinch at the calorie warnings posted overhead and decide to ignore them, ordering a fried soft-shell crab sandwich and fries. I didn’t drive this far for a health food fix.  I’m here to relive my childhood - even though I was born in Detroit - to wade in nostalgia for Brooklyn of the movies, to see what the city has done to salvage or savage Coney Island. Like Will Rogers, “I would rather be the man who bought the Brooklyn Bridge than the man who sold it.” 

A neon thrill from childhood, even if it wasn't my childhood. Photo: Steven Richter

        There is just one shucker at 8 pm. She is swift and steady, executing the stab and curl easily, without slashing her long, fancy pink fingernails.  Suddenly, I realize she is washing each clam both before and after opening.  I ask her to skip the second rinse for my dozen and a half Little Necks.

        My request bamboozles her. “But I have to get the sand off,” she says. 

        “That’s okay. Don’t worry about sand,” I say.

        She sets to work on the first dozen.  Halfway through she walks up to me with a clam in her hand. “See that sand. I have to wash it.”

         I assure her she will not be held responsible for grit. “Great manicure,” I say.  She smiles.

Nathan's all beef franks were good enough for FDR and Eleanor. Photo: Steven Richter

        The hot dogs are not bad – all beef in natural casings. It’s the same frank, from his wife Ida’s recipe, that Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker starting selling from a Coney Island stand in 1916. Same frank President Roosevelt and Eleanor served to the King and Queen of England in 1939, and again at Yalta to Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, for which we may or may not blame the Cold War.

All's quiet on the shooting range tonight. A slow night for teddy bears. Photo: Steven Richter

         I like mine with chili and a squirt of hot sauce, and savor a bite of Steven’s with mustard and sauerkraut. The roll is supposed to be squishy soft, of course. No rule you have to eat it. We’re all sharing the crinkle-cut fries. Should I go back for chow mein on a bun? A corn dog on a stick?  How about fried frogs’ legs?  We decide to save ourselves for pasta with red sauce.

        But first a stroll on the boardwalk. “No one’s won me a teddy bear for years,” says Penny, who has no memory of Brooklyn since she emigrated to Long Island when she was a year old. Peter isn’t about to pick up a gun or a baseball to knock over a duck and win her a teddy.  He was born in Brookline, MA. Steven’s a cowboy from the Bronx, too busy taking pictures as we ramble past the rides. The park is very low energy on a Wednesday: One little girl riding to the hounds on the Merry-Go-Round. A lone boy steering a truck to nowhere. You have to be at least 54 inches tall to ride the Cyclone.  We’re eligible.  Probably best to do that before chow.

Landmark, neon art, garbage heap: It’s all in the mix at Coney Island. Photo: Steven Richter

        “Let’s go find Fiorentino’s,” I suggest.

        “Are you still hungry?” Penny asks.

        “Not really,” I respond, sort of surprised. Twenty minutes ago I was still ravenous. “I was all ready for calamari with red sauce.”

        We decide to hit Brighton Beach for people-watching but we can’t find any. “I’ll settle for babka,” I say.  Penny jumps out twice at cafes but no one has ever heard of babka.   I feel unfulfilled.


Randazzo's: Start with a Dozen

It began with grandma Helen's hot sauce. Photo: Steven Richter

        A native son of Flatbush, Steven Greenberg, the Midas of rooftop nightlife, agrees to abandon the Friday night madding in his 22,000 square foot garden atop 230 Fifth to explore Sheepshead Bay with us. He insists we drive past where he illegally posted the sign for his first Wendy’s decades ago before we hit Randazzo’s, numero uno in Sam Sifton’s recent clam bar crawl.

Clam Bar heir Paulie Randazzo keeping tables turning fast, stops to pose with Steven Greenberg. Photo: Steven Richter

        No one bats an eye - though we might have landed from Mars - Greenberg surely being the only man loose on the shore tonight in a dark blue suit and tie with shoulder length white hair. We’re #10 in line. A mirror makes the place seem larger than just 100 seats. The burly guy in charge hustles outside to find #4. Paulie, a third generation Randazzo – Grandma Helen staked her claim with the famous hot sauce that launched the empire in 1960 – races around the room schmoozing guests, alerting the front desk to a table turn. It’s a family affair. His daughter Elena tends the phone.  Son Tommy chases a friend around the dining room.

Communion with the sea, oysters, cherrystones, Little Necks two ways. Photo: Steven Richter

        The hard-working servers - mostly middle-aged women in black tunics and pants – have seen and heard everything.  Ours delivers calamari, tender but not wimpy, lightly battered, cleanly fried and still warm with saucers of Grandma Helen’s sauce – mild and hot, $1 for extra sauce.

Little Necks hiding under a bready, bland blanket.  Photo: Steven Richter

        “I’d come back just for this calamari,” Greenberg announces.  I agree. The baked clams aren’t bad either, a little bready, a little bland but with a luscious whole clam underneath. I couldn’t care less because I’m slurping up the cool briny nectar, nibbling delicately chewy critters raw on the half shell, pink as a Botticelli nude. I’ve eaten my share and want more.

        “Save room for the rest,” Steven the G warns.  Alas, the rest is really awful.  Fried oysters and soft shell crabs on buns are lost in a rigid girdle of breading. We start scraping the crust off fried zucchini in what may be a subconscious need for a vitamin.  Actually, there is a salad on the menu.  At the next table a man snorts his greens like a shark eating someone’s leg.  The full room is strangely quiet.

        “No one is talking except the Asians,” observes Patty on my right, who is Korean.

        I look up. “They’re all too busy eating.” 

        I should have ordered the red or white clam sauce with linguine.  Or pasta with lobster.  Or shrimp Fra Diavolo. Or even “marinated burned chicken” just for research sake.  I didn’t notice that linguine marechiara meant shrimp, clams and calamari chopped up in a listless pink sauce.  Hopelessly boring.  We decide to take our progressive feast to Coney Island.

Just standing at Williams Candy Store window can be sweet enough. Photo: Steven Richter

        My guy longs for a hot dog but we’re up against the daunting Friday night swarm at Nathan’s. Meanwhile the rest of us have marched directly to Williams Candy Store, a Surf Avenue family fixture for 75 years. Steven G and Patty study the window with its rows of candy apples in full dress, sprinkles, chopped nuts, toasted coconut.  I consider a chocolate caramel apple with chocolate sprinkles. But I don’t have dental insurance anymore since I got fired. In a fit of nostalgia, Greenberg must have coconut-coated marshmallow on a stick. Patty and I pick up Steven and walk east to Denny’s Ice Cream. I treat her to Hershey’s vanilla and peach in a cone. 

        “What’s ‘Moose Tracks?’” I ask the man at the freezer.

        “It’s got pieces of candy bar and peanut butter.”  He piles it high for $3. It’s soft and melting fast. I bite into it, grooving on a big lump of chocolate. Oh yeah, “Moose Tracks.” Now I get it.

Friday night fireworks explode over the boardwalk at Coney Island. Photo: Steven Richter

        Suddenly there is a volley of explosions. Thwack! We round the corner where a crowd is stalled mesmerized. Friday night fireworks. Wish I was watching from the Wonder Wheel. We march toward the ocean to be closer, lingering till the bombastic finale, then heading back. We pass voluptuous women sipping double piña coladas in weird stretched-out plastic glasses, babies in strollers, both zonked out and alert, every color skin, saris and tunics, women in headscarves, women in strapless minis, big fat women, normal size women with size D breasts, yawning hawkers with no one accepting their challenge to take aim and win a creepy iridescent duck.

        If you called Central Casting to put in a call for a Coney Island scene, you would send this thrilling, scarifying crowd back as impossibly exaggerated. Yes, the “new” and old Coney Island is tawdry and tacky and dirty, riff raff welcome and cross islanders too. It’s far from little black dress Manhattan where you need to belong to the club that won’t have you. But it’s landmark Coney Island, with vintage treasures, fascinating, hypnotically ugly and endlessly charming. Be grateful it survives.

Nathan’s Coney Island, 1310 Surf Avenue between 15th Street and Stillwell. 718 946 2202 Sunday through Thursday 8 am to 1 am.  Friday and Saturday till 2 am. Also at 1129 Boardwalk.

Randazzo’s Clam Bar 2017 Emmons Avenue, corner of 21st Street. Sheepshead Bay. 718 615 0010. Sunday through Thursday 11 am to 11:15 pm. Friday and Saturday till 12:15 am.

Denny's Ice Cream. 1212 Surf Avenue between 12th Street and Stillwell. Coney Island. 718 266-9371.

Williams Candy Store. 1318 Surf Avenue between 15th Street and Schweiker’s Walk. Coney Island. 718 372 0302.