Wantagh is an ordinary upper-middle-class community. It’s not particularly remarkable or memorable. Notable figures include Amy Fisher, Richard Nixon’s dog Checkers, and a racially insensitive school mascot. Best known as “The Gateway to Jones Beach,” its biggest claim to fame is utilitarian. You must come here, if only to get to a seemingly better place.
But it is home to my childhood.
On a recent trip back to visit my parents, they took me to DJ’s Clam Shack: “Where Northern & Southern Seafood Meet,” in this case, in Wantagh. Nestled in the corner of a small strip mall, next to an Edible Arrangements on the six-lane Sunrise Highway, the relatively new outpost (2017) had already earned their patronage, twice. (The original Key West location opened in 2009, later appearing on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and a Vegas location launched this past March.)
Growing up, the 4.1-square-miles of dining options included an amalgam of diners, drive-thrus, and delis. A few pubs, pizzerias, and bagel places rounded out the culinary diversity. When the three of us pulled up to a packed parking lot, with a line of hungry patrons snaked out the front door of the now defunct Mr. Pies pizzeria, I thought, “How did this place end up here?”
As it turns out, the story of this location is one shaped by shrewdness.
“We wanted the South Shore and, to be honest with you, you have to find a hood,” owner Paul Riggio explained, referring to the type of commercial restaurant exhaust hoods used to ventilate hot air and smoke out of the kitchen. (Just installing a new hood can cost somewhere between $16,000 and $20,000.) “It wasn’t like, Oh Wantagh, I can’t lie and say it—but I will say one thing, this town has taken us in.” A sentiment he conveyed three times, in varying permutations, during our conversation.
In fact it was Jeff Gagnon, his “5th grade friend” and the elusive “J” of DJ’s who, according to Riggio, first opted for the South Shore.
Both men grew up on Long Island, (As Jerry Seinfeld notes in his Netflix stand-up, “You live on Long Island, not in Long Island.”) but today, Riggio lives in New York City and reverse commutes the 90 minutes each way. The former trader, who refuses to call himself a restauranteur, is from the “Wall Street side of things.” While trading is his real passion, as he puts it, he was done and just looking for something to do when Gagnon convinced him to “go 50/50.”
“He wanted to be close so he could keep an eye on things,’ Riggio laughed. “But he’s never here. Is he here? I don’t know, I don’t see him.” (In addition to the three DJ’s locations, Gagnon runs Kingston’s Clam Bar in West Sayville.)
Gagnon’s current whereabouts aside, the two rebuilt this location together. Gagnon constructed the bar. Riggio painted. They decorated with a mix of local clamming artifacts, branded beach gear, and large fish mounted to the walls. And new that week, they added another high chair.
Unlike Key West, which according to manager Anthony Gentile, “is more grab a beer and a lobster roll and move on with your day,” here people come—and stay—for the meals. They bring their kids, whether they’re three, thirteen, or in their thirties.
“Lobster Roll is definitely number one here,” said Riggio. Both of them. DJ’s serves Maine and Connecticut-style rolls, and roughly an equal amount of each. It’s the place for “the ones who can’t decide.” When I sampled the latter, the roll had heft and tingled with butter. It provided a fine complement to the tender flesh of the lobster. Straight out of onion rings, the sweet potato fries, which are more wedge than fry, were a fine runner up. (Note to self and other ring lovers, arrive earlier.) Beyond lobster, the top sellers are Mahi Mahi Tacos, Shrimp Scampi Roll, Kung Pow Calamari, and takeout.
Before DJ’s Clam Shack, Riggio’s knowledge of Wantagh was, unsurprisingly, limited. Still, he’s embracing his new role and community, taking part in the Wantagh Chamber of Commerce, charity work with the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) and Eagle Scout Project, and fundraising for a local councilwoman’s reelection campaign. He’s even “looking around here to live.”
When asked how close they were to opening their second location (Or is it fourth?), Riggio smiled and said, “We’re just looking. We’re just looking.”