Trabucco on PisserClam site: “When we were on the pier, I tried bringing in clams and lobsters from back East."
I may have been sitting on the western rim of the continent, but for about half an hour on January 23, I thought I was back East. Pete Trabucco, co-owner of Chaz’s Sunset Cafe on Ocean Boulevard in Pacific Beach, was talking in an excited voice inflected with a Boston accent. His younger brother Chaz was milling around in his Red Sox hat. It was 8:00 a.m., and we were sipping coffee and talking about clams. Pisser clams, to be exact.
The pisser is a soft-shell clam native to the East Coast. It is found from the Arctic Ocean south to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Pisser is the clam’s nom de guerre. When you touch one, it shoots a jet of water from its long siphon. The bulk of these clams come from low-salinity flats in New England and the Chesapeake Bay. Trabucco, a self-described clam connoisseur, has taken it on himself to introduce the pisser clam to San Diego. He plans on doing this through ! his Real Pisser Clam Club and its associated website (www.pisserclams.com), which will be up and running in the near future.
“I was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts,” Trabucco explained. “I moved to Norton in the Attleboro-Foxboro area when I was 11 or 12. I went to high school there, then went into the j Air Force. I was stationed in Turkey and Texas and got used to warm weather. I got out of the service and realized I didn’t want to live in New ! England anymore because of the weather. So I moved to California — to Los Angeles — in 1967. I had a number of restaurants and businesses. For years I was in the garment business, and then I was a salesman selling arts-and-crafts supplies. My forte really is merchandising. When I first came down to San Diego, I was a partner in a store in El Cajon. Then we had a souvenir store in front of Crystal Pier in 1983. In 1986, we opened Chaz’s on the pier. We sold breakfast and seafood. We were there for four years. In 1990, they wanted to expand the units on Crystal Pier, so we closed down.”
At the time, Chaz’s was housed in a trailer. “When we closed,” Trabucco remembered, “we attempted to sell the trailer. We kept it in storage for four years because I refused to give it away for nothing.” When a lot became available in 1996 at 4535 Ocean Boulevard, Pete and Chaz moved the trailer into a new structure. Today, the trailer is the kitchen at Chaz’s Sunset Cafe, which sells breakfast and lunch. In 1999, Chaz’s Crabcakes Benedict won the California Egg Commission’s Great Egg Idea Award.
“When we were on the pier,” Trabucco recalled, “I tried bringing in clams and lobsters from back East. With the clams, I thought because I loved clams, everybody would love clams, but it didn’t work that way. I would run ads in the papers, but there was not enough response. They would come in on a plane, and I would wash ’em, clean ’em, and put out the ads, but nobody would show up. I would sell some, maybe 30 pounds, but I would be stuck with 70 pounds. I had to do at least 100 pounds to justify the freight cost. You can’t bring in just a few pounds.”
But Trabucco is trying again, and this time he has the power of the Internet behind his project. He announced the formation of the Real Pisser Clam Club and the launch of the site on January 10. “I’ve got a deal with Ipswich Shellfish Company,” Trabucco explained. “They’re one of the biggest back East. They’ve got 400 employees. They’ve got places in Cape Cod, in the city of Boston, and in Maryland. They do a huge Coast people Internet business. I’ve worked out my freight and costs, and I’ll be able to sell my clams to both consumers and restaurants for $4.95 a pound. In the three
weeks since I announced this, there has been no resistance. little Necks at Albertson’s are $5 a pound. If you’re buying cockles and cherrystones, the other clams that are available in San Diego, you’re probably gonna be paying $2.75 to $2.95 a pound, but you’re not gonna get pisser clams. You’re not gonna get the big siphon and the big, juicy bellies. I’ve tried for years to see if Pacific Shellfish or the Chesapeake Fish Company could get these clams. But they do not sell soft-shell clams. They are really not interested in bringing them in because one customer wouldn’t go through 100 pounds, and the restaurants don’t want to pay a bigger price than they are for the clams they’re getting locally. Plus, the customers don’t know the difference. So why go through the hassle?”
Trabucco answered his own question. “Well, they’re not the same. All the East Coast people understand what real steamers and fried clams are all about. And they understand the real clam roll too. Pisser clams are what I grew up with and what people on the East Coast know as steamers. It is the best clam to steam. When people have steamers, they’re having soft-shell clams. Steamers is kind of a generic name, but it’s not as specific as pisser. As an example I always ask, ‘Look, do you own a Jacuzzi or do you just own a hot tub?’ When you use the other clams for steamers, it’s just not the same. We’re talking apples and oranges.
“Being from Boston,” Trabucco said, “we’re tied into the Internet. We’re signed up with both the Red Sox and the Celtics. We get e-mail two or three times a week about the teams. Look, this is as much about the new economy as it is about clams. On a recent trip back East I figured, ‘Hey, what if I set a club up?’ Then I know that I’ve got the customers that want clams. The key is e-mail. By getting them signed up to join the club, I can e-mail them when the clams are in. And then they come, and I will not be stuck with clams. Or at least what’s left over I can sell here retail. A lot of people thought at first that Chaz’s was gonna sell clams. We're not gonna sell clams in the beginning. As we get along into April and May and the summer, we’ll sell clams on the weekends, and they’ll be a chalkboard item. If we got ’em, we sell ’em. If we don’t got ’em, we don’t sell ’em. They will be on the menu as steamers with real coleslaw for $ 14.95. We will also sell them in clam baskets — fried clams on a bed of french fries for $6.95 to $7.95 — and as a fried clam roll on a toasted hot-dog bun for $6.95.” The Real Pisser Clam Club has already caused a small stir. “Five minutes after they got the press release,” Trabucco said, “Channel 8 responded. They called me and wanted to come and do a segment on the clam club. I told them that I don’t have the clams in yet, but they said, ‘That’s okay, we’ll come anyway.’ So Geni Cavitt came over at 5:00 in the morning and started filming. They were here at Chaz’s for two hours. Geni and the whole crew were superb. But Geni was slightly embarrassed saying ‘pisser clam’ on the air. She had just been down in Little Italy doing a bit on a master baker, so she felt she was on this hot run.”
To join the club, individual clam lovers have to pay a $50 annual fee ($100 for restaurants). “When you join the club,” Trabucco explained, “each time you have to buy a minimum of two pounds. Also, each time you come we’ll give you a recipe for cooking the clams. That could be steamers, clams oregano, clams with truffles, or New England clam chowder. When you get the clams, you clean ’em, then you clean ’em again — wash ’em, scrub ’em. Then you throw them in that pot of boiling water — or garlic, or beer, whatever you’re steaming them in — and they will open themselves up because they are looking for oxygen. So only eat those that open up. We will provide educational material about cleaning and cooking. We want to build a customer base for these clams.” Membership also gets you a T-shirt. Trabucco showed me a sketch of his latest T-shirt idea. “I love this,” he said. “Pisser Clams. Almost as good as sex. Almost.” The first clam party will be at Chaz’s on Monday, February 19, at 2:00 p.m. Call Pete Trabucco at 858-270-6980. Or better yet, e-mail him at [email protected] ■