How Chicago’s Best New England Clam Shack Wound Up on Lincoln Avenue

Bob and Jeff Mazza of New England Seafood Market.
Bob and Jeff Mazza of New England Seafood Market. Photo: Sky Full of Bacon

Immigrants feel nostalgia for the food of their homeland and by recreating it, enrich us all. This is true whether the immigrants are Bosnians— or Bostonians. And it’s how Jeff Mazza and his brother Bob came to be the owners of a Boston-style fish and clam shack on Lincoln Avenue in Roscoe Village/West Lakeview. The Mazzas, whose family has been in the fishing and wholesaling trades right on Boston Harbor for several generations, opened New England Seafood Market last year as a retail operation to bring Chicago the working man’s seafood that they missed from the east coast— lobster rolls, fried and steamer clams, fish and chips and chowder.

There’s nothing fancy about the joint— well, they did upgrade from paper plates to diner china some months back— but it’s exactly the sort of neighborhood joint doing honest food with care and respect for tradition and a welcoming attitude that you’d want it to be, and it’s won a quick following even among midwesterners in the neighborhood who have to be taught how to eat steamer clams the Boston way. (We have a tutorial on that very point below.) We stopped in earlier in the week to hear Bob talk about how the shop got its start in his unmistakable Boston accent. Ironically, thanks to Hurricane Sandy, the fish case and lobster tank were unusually bare that day, but on most days you’ll find a nice assortment of extremely fresh ocean fish, mussels, clams and more, and the staff eager to turn any of it into a fresh and tasty lunch.

How’d you end up opening a fish market in Roscoe Village?

It all started back in the New England area, my father’s been doing this for fifty years, grew up in the industry. I ended up moving to Chicago, which is a great city, for college, and I found myself looking for that East Coast fare that I grew up with and didn’t really find it. So we just thought it was a great idea. And I’ve lived in the area, so when this location opened up, with Whole Foods and Dinkel’s Bakery and Paulina Meat Market and so on nearby, we thought this would be a great fit for a seafood place.

Were you in the fish business when you moved here?

At first I wasn’t. I came here to go to school in finance, and worked in the financial industry. But growing up, of course, that’s all I would do— work in the family business there on Boston Harbor. My father wanted us all to go to college— go get an education, explore something else, he’d say. But eventually I went back into the family business.

We do some wholesale as well, we fly out shipments and bring them to restaurants. Even the big distributors like Fortune or Plitt will tell you, the stuff we specialize in, we have great product, because we’re right there on the harbor and next to Logan Airport, taking it in and shipping it right out. It’s not going in a facility.

How’s the reaction in the neighborhood been?

It’s been wonderful. I guess you could maybe classify it as three different types of people who like it. One, I think of the people who are from the East Coast and know this kind of food and are thrilled. I had an older gentleman in an old Patriots jersey practically hug me, saying “I haven’t had a meal like these fried clams in twenty-five years,” that makes me happy. Then there’s midwesterners who’ve been out east and know the food, and then there’s people who don’t know anything about steamed clams, but we teach them how to eat them and they love it.

Now that we’re kind of established, we’re thinking about something like a lobster truck downtown. A lobster roll truck. You know, when I first moved here, you go out to eat every day. To have something like a lobster truck out there selling great lobster rolls at lunch— I’d love that.

So tell us about some of the East Coast things that you feel you’re introducing people to.

Well, the first thing is haddock. Haddock is a whiter fish, it’s grown out east. Out here you may find Alaskan cod or halibut in fish and chips, but the haddock is one of my favorite fishes, I think it makes the best fish and chips. Also, the fried clams or steamer clams, a lot of people may not know what a steamer clam is, but we tell them, it’s not just a clam, it’s a whole experience— we’d sit on docks and decks with a bunch of steamer clams and a bowl of water and a bowl of butter and you dunk it in the water to get any sand or grit off, then you dunk it in the butter. I think that’s a pretty unique part of this place, getting people to try that.

Even the lobster roll itself, we get the rolls from Boston. We’re not trying to create culinary magic here, it’s pretty simple, but we grew up eating it this way and we miss it. Personally, we eat it simple, no butter, no mayonnaise, nothing, but if people want mayo on it, we’ll put as much as they want on it.

Fish and chips are one of those things people argue about, who has the best. Make the case for your fish and chips.

Well, we start with haddock, like I say. I think it’s a very beautiful fish— an underrated fish, phenomenal flavor, we bake it as well as fry it. Our batter— it’s very basic, it’s not anything that you can’t make at home, but it’s a light batter, we want the fish to speak for itself. The homemade fries are a new addition, we went to doing fries that way and people like that.

I think for everything here, we try to let the fish speak for itself. As fresh as it is, it’s pretty tasty stuff. I was talking to a friend of mine who asked me, what’s your place like? And I said, we want you to get dirty. Crack the lobsters and get dirty. We grew up eating it like that, and we want you to experience that. It’s almost like you’re hopping on a flight to Boston. When you leave here, we want you to feel like you’ve been out east, sitting on a dock eating seafood. Especially something like lobster, we feel like, you’ve worked for your meal, have fun and enjoy it.

Jeff Mazza Shows How To Eat Steamer Clams

First: order a bag of clams, which comes with bowls of butter and hot water.

Pull the whole clam out of the shell.

Then peel the outer layer off the neck, kind of like taking off a sock.

Yeah, we said a sock.

Swish it a little in the warm water to remove any sand or grit, then dunk it in the butter and eat it.

How Chicago’s Best New England Clam Shack Wound Up on Lincoln Avenue