Quahogs star at this block party

Joe Montisano of Wareham rakes for quahogs, littlenecks, and cherrystones on Wickets Island through early fall. Joe Montisano of Wareham rakes for quahogs, littlenecks, and cherrystones on Wickets Island through early fall. (Photos By Debee Tlumacki for The Boston Globe)
By Marlissa Briggett
Globe Correspondent / September 23, 2009

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ONSET - At the annual block party on a small street here, folks are lining up for Joe Montisano’s quahog chowder. Some are there for their second (and third) helpings. Generous chunks of briny clam in a flavorful broth, with diced potatoes and smoky bacon, offer layers of flavor in each bite.

Montisano is spooning his chowder out for neighbors within sight of Wickets Island in Onset Bay, where he gathers cherrystones, littlenecks, and quahogs. Throughout the summer and early fall, he rows over to the island in a small dinghy. Standing up to his waist at low tide, he rakes for about an hour to gather a peck of clams, the limit allowed with his recreational shellfishing permit.

So far Montisano’s freezer has been stuffed with at least six pecks of clams for chowders, pasta dishes, stuffed quahogs, and appetizers. He uses the clams as he gathers them. Once home, he cleans them thoroughly. Clams headed for the freezer go into plastic storage bags. He defrosts them in the refrigerator. As they defrost, they open slightly, making the shucking and removal of the meat inside an easy proposition.

At the block party, neighbors are clamoring for the recipe. Montisano is happy to share it, except for one problem. He’s never written it down. Recently, he agreed to keep track of ingredients and measurements so he had something more exact.

He preps most of the food ahead of time. He keeps diced, blanched potatoes and diced garlic scapes in the freezer. Celery, onions, and clams are also already chopped. With the hard work out of the way, he has winnowed the actual hands-on cooking time down to half an hour. “Rachael Ray has got nothing on me,’’ he says.

Montisano moves around the kitchen with confidence. He spent his childhood in Dedham, closely watching his mother cook and learning from her. Most of his teenage jobs were in restaurants. Nowadays, he cooks for his appreciative family, friends, and - when they’re lucky - the neighbors.

He finishes the chowder, and his 2-year-old granddaughter Ava is ready. “Let’s have some chowdah!’’ she says, with the same enthusiasm displayed by the crowd at the block party.