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Chickie Aggelakis, who made Ipswich’s Clam Box a regional institution, dies at 70

Ms. Aggelakis (left) lived in Ipswich all of her life.Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

Devoted customers of the Clam Box in Ipswich often waited in line an hour or more on weekends for what they considered New England’s premier fried clams.

And since the mid-1980s, when she first called the clam box-shaped joint her own, a prime reason customers were willing to wait was Marina Aggelakis — Chickie to everyone, since infancy.

“I’m really a hands-on owner,” she told the Salem News a decade ago. “I’m here all the time, from 8 o’clock in the morning until 10 at night, knowing the product that comes in, knowing everything.”

Ms. Aggelakis was still there this year, keeping an eye on everything from her car outside the Clam Box when the pandemic and her own health concerns made it inadvisable for her to work inside. She was 70 when she died in her Ipswich home Wednesday of metastatic cancer.

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For customers and employees alike, the appeal of the Clam Box was as much Ms. Aggelakis as it was the delicacies she refined.

“When you met her, she filled your heart with warmth — with her smile and her excitement and her genuine interest in people,” said her daughter-in-law, Johanna Pechilis Aggelakis, who works for the family business with her husband, Dimitri. “She was a phenomenal listener.”

Ms. Aggelakis knew many customers by name, and at times it seemed as if she had hired and supervised much of the Ipswich population. Decades of teenagers counted the Clam Box as the first and most memorable place they’d ever be employed.

“She was a mentor to literally generations of kids,” Johanna said. “Since the mid-’80s, most of the Ipswich kids have worked at the Clam Box.”

Under the leadership of Ms. Aggelakis, a trip to the Clam Box was unforgettable.

“As you approach, the most notable thing about Clam Box is that it actually looks like a clam box, open at the top and waiting to be filled with fried nuggets,” Globe restaurant critic Devra First wrote in “the 2008 Boston Globe Route 133 clam-off” comparing the fare along the North Shore. The Clam Box, offering “fried-clam perfection,” won.

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For newcomers and regulars alike, Ms. Aggelakis’s presence and the sweetness of her food combined for results that First called “clam perfection: a batter that is light and just crunchy enough, allowing the taste and texture of the clams to come through clearly. They are sweet and tender. The oil is changed daily, and you can barely smell it on the clams. They simply smell golden and briny.”

Changing the frying oil was essential, Ms. Aggelakis said.

“We change the oil twice a day. We change it at 2:30 in the afternoon,” she told the Phantom Gourmet a few years ago. “We have a sign that says we stop cooking for about 15 to 20 minutes, and we dump all the oil out and put fresh oil in. It’s 29 years that I’ve been here. We’ve always stopped at 2:30, and the customers are fine with it.”

So were the critics. Ms. Aggelakis won raves and awards throughout her tenure.

“She received a million accolades and they were important to her because she kept her standards up and wanted people to know it,” said her longtime friend Rosemary Lappin, a retired senior producer at WCVB-TV who met Ms. Aggelakis 29 years ago when she scheduled a remote segment, featuring weatherman Dick Albert, at the Clam Box.

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Taping a weather feature at the Clam Box made sense to Ms. Aggelakis.

“She constantly watched the weather,” Lappin added. “She said, ‘It’s because it impacts my business.’ "

Weather was a key factor affecting everything from the availability of fresh clams to how many customers might arrive on a given day.

“She knew her business,” Lappin said, “and she made it a science.”

Born in 1949 in Cable Memorial Hospital in Ipswich, Marina Galanis grew up on the Timber Hill farm in town that had been in her family for more than a century.

“And she lived there her entire life — same house,” Johanna said. “She was a woman of routine, I’ll tell you that.”

Her mother was Stella Pappas and her father was Peter Galanis, who ran the family’s Agawam Diner in Rowley.

As an infant, Ms. Aggelakis acquired her memorable nickname.

“When she was a baby, one her siblings said, ‘Oh, she looks just like a little chick,’ and it stuck,” Johanna said. “Since she was a little baby they called her Chickie. There are people who had no idea what her real name was, including me. I grew up in Ipswich and had no idea what her real name was until I started dating her son.”

One of three siblings, Ms. Aggelakis graduated from Ipswich High School and studied at Westbrook College in Portland, Maine, where she received a degree in design. She was a buyer at Jordan Marsh before running the Clam Box.

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“That was her passion,” Johanna said. “She loved clothes, she loved fashion.”

Ms. Aggelakis’s marriage to Theodore Aggelakis, with whom she had a son, Dimitri, ended in divorce. The couple had run three locations of Chick’s Roast Beef.

The building that houses the Clam Box, built in 1935, was an ice cream shop in an earlier incarnation, Ms. Aggelakis told the Salem News. The architecture made it impossible to miss.

“When I give people directions, I’ll say, ’Follow 1A and you’ll come right into the Clam Box. You can’t miss it ’cause it’s shaped like a clam box,” Ms. Aggelakis told the Phantom Gourmet.

Although clams are “the ‘in’ thing” that prompts customers to wait so long in line on the weekends, the Clam Box’s tartar sauce is also famous.

“The difference here is I make my tartar sauce,” Ms. Aggelakis told the Salem News. “Most tartar sauce is made with dill relish. I use sweet relish, so when you dip clams into the sauce, it gives it like a sweet taste.”

In addition to her son, Dimitri, her daughter-in-law, Johanna, and mother, Stella, all of Ipswich, Ms. Aggelakis leaves a brother, John Galanis of California, and a sister, Elaine Kaszuba of Ipswich.

A graveside service will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday in Highland Cemetery in Ipswich. The public is invited, and the family offered a reminder that those attending should wear face coverings and observe social distancing.

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Clam flats that stretch from Essex on north through Ipswich and into Rowley turned the North Shore into a fried clam destination decades ago, and Ms. Aggelakis “had a very good relationship with all of the clam diggers in town,” Johanna said. “They all know her and love her.”

A 2002 New York Times feature about Ipswich fried clams described Ms. Aggelakis as “an imposing woman with a radiant smile who rules the Clam Box as if she were the queen of a particularly happy and fortunate land.”

She had a strong sense of history for the Clam Box and the area’s culinary claim to fame.

“We still have the original menus up in the office, which we’ll keep up all our time here,” Johanna said.

Lawrence “Chubby” Woodman is generally acknowledged as having invented the fried clam in 1916, in Essex.

“They invented the fried clam,” Ms. Aggelakis told the Globe for a 2016 feature marking the delicacy’s centennial, “but we’ve perfected it.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.