I bring my sense of food adventure with me on the road, searching for the most authentic, iconic, and delicious dishes of a different region…
For such a tiny little state (the tiniest, actually), I was amazed at how many local dishes I found in Rhode Island. There were so many different iconic foods that I really only got to taste one version of each on my long weekend between Providence and Newport.
What I have always loved about Rhode Island is how varied such a tiny state is – you have urban cities, you have artsy college towns, you have beautiful harbors, you have thriving farmland, you really have it all. And you have some really amazing food – both highbrow and lowbrow.
New York System
No offense is meant by calling the New York system hot dog the most low brow of the food. Because it is actually one of the most delicious. Hot dogs like these are usually found at working class joints that serve other fried, greasy food. We had our first taste of authentic Rhode Island flavors at Olneyville New York System. This particular hot weiner (they don’t call them hot dogs up here) probably got its name from the fact that Greek immigrants moved from New York and brought a methodical system for topping these links.
Today, you won’t find dogs like these anywhere else. The pork and veal wiener is lighter than most with snipped edges. It’s then put into a steamed bun, topped with chopped onions, yellow mustard, celery salt, and a spiced meat sauce. With all the sweet and spicy flavors, it might have been better than most dogs I’ve tasted in New York proper. I see why people come here and easily eat three or four of these. And since they’re open until the wee hours of the morning, it’s nice to know you can get your weiner fix at all hours.
At Olneyville New York System, we also got to sample Rhode Island’s state drink (did you know there was such a thing?). Anybody who grew up in these parts, would have shunned chocolate milk in favor of coffee milk. It’s not a whole lot different from its chocolate brother, but it might keep you up longer. Cold milk is mixed with a sweetened coffee syrup (the most famous is Autocrat and it’s available at supermarkets) for a refreshing, creamy drink. It’s Rhode Island’s answer to NYC’s egg cream.
Coffee milk was a little too mild in the coffee department for me. I much prefered the Awful Awful (awful big, awful good), which is a specialty ice cream milkshake served at Newport Creamery. It’s similar to the more ubiquitous Coffee Cabinet (again, not sure what the name is all about) but is made with ice milk instead of whole milk. It was so good, I finished it before I was able to snap a photo.
While coffee milk officially became the state drink, there’s another Rhode Island-refreshment that deserves at least second place. In New York, we have Mister Softee Ice Cream trucks on every corner, but in Rhode Island the more familiar site is Del’s Lemonade trucks. I actually got to sample the frozen lemonade in NYC (a franchised truck roamed the city last summer), but it tasted even better on Easton’s Beach in Newport.
The slushy treat is sweeter than traditional lemonade (but not too sweet) with bits of lemon rinds throughout for a sweet, tart, refreshing experience.
I was worried I wouldn’t get to try the legendary jonnycake on my trip to Rhode Island. They’re a bit harder to find and from the research I’ve done, it’s more of a museum piece than an actual common dish. But we found the diviest of diners well-off-the-beaten tourist path in Newport. While the vacation town is known for its fanciful 19th Century mansions, I was more excited by Bishop’s 4th Street Diner located in a trailer in the middle of a rotary. Inside on a quiet Monday morning, we stuck out like a sore thumb among the old men playing Keno.
We ordered the jonnycakes and some Portuguese French Toast. Jonnycakes are almost pancakes, but made of fried cornmeal. Here they were paper thin and topped with a pad of butter.
Next to the eggy french toast, the jonnycakes were light and slightly bland with just a hint of salt and corn flavor. I actually didn’t mind them, but they certainly won’t replace gutbomb pancakes anytime soon.
Another thing every Rhode Island child knows well are pizza strips. Before I saw them sitting at room temaparture wrapped in plastic at Calvitto’s Italian bakery in Narragansett, I would have guessed they were just pizza cut into strips. But these are much more difficult to understand.
You will only really find them at Italian bakeries, where they are indeed supposed to be served at room temperature, or at social gatherings. I’m not sure why they are called strips because they’re much closer in shape to rectangles. Cheese is nowhere to be found, but in its place is lots of rich, thick tomato sauce, well-seasoned and acidic, sitting on a crusty albeit slightly soggy dough. It’s not my pizza style of choice, but it wasn’t half bad. And if I was a kid, I would eat these up a little too easily despite the lack of cheese.
I spent most of the time in Newport eating up as much local seafood as possible. I’m surprised there is anything left in the waters up there after my binge. The most popular bit of seafood in these parts is the Quahog, a giant clam, that is cooked in all sorts of dishes. Clam chowder is the most obvious. But up in Rhode Island, they do it a little different than their neighboring New Englanders.
Most menus offer at least two (and sometimes three) chowder varieties – clear, white, and red. The white variety is offered because many people expect the creamy Boston-style. However, if you want true Rhode Island-style chowder, you’ve got to stick with one of the other two.
Most common is the clear broth which focuses more on the clams and less on the cream. In fact, there’s no cream in the one I tried at Flo’s Clam Shack in Middletown. Just loads of clams, potatoes, and spices. It gives it a more bracing and briny flavor and I love that nothing distracts from the clam.
The red style looks like it could be what most people call Manhattan clam chowder, but it’s not. It’s much lighter and brothier. The version at Champlin’s Seafood in Narragansett was loaded with clams and flavors of the sea right alongside smoky spices and herbs. I believe it was originally created by the Italian immigrants that came through these parts.
Another dish on Champlin’s menu that definitely has Italian influence is the snail salad. You’d never see this at a similar clam shack in Maine, but evidentally it’s pretty common around parts of Rhode Island.
Thinly sliced scungilli is tossed with lots of peppers, celery, onions, oil, and garlic. The texture of the snail really added a unique sensation to the expected tang of the salad. Who needs tuna salad anymore?
A more dramatic use for those giant Quahog clams are in making what the locals call stuffies. They take the meat out of the giant shell, chop it up, mix it with breading, spices, and sometimes Portuguese sausage, then stuff it back in the giant shell and bake it. They’re basically stuffed clams. But it’s more fun to call them stuffies.
Although the breading was abundant in Champlin’s stuffies, they were clean and flavorful. The filling got to me rather quickly and I could only eat so many bites.
I thought the ones at Flo’s were presented with a bit more drama, but I could taste very little clam flavor beneath the cold interior. I thought the actual clam meat got lost underneath all those peppers and breading. And although it had quite a bit of peppery heat, it was almost paste-like in texture.
Flo’s most signature dish seems to be their clam cakes. One might assume these are similar to crab cakes, but they’d be wrong. These are basically clam doughnuts. Think about that for just a moment.
While they almost killed me, Flo’s clam cakes were one of the most gutbusting delicious things I tasted in all of Rhode Island. Generous chunks of clams were hidden inside a warm, soft bready interior. The fried dough had a hint of sweetness, reminiscent of street fairs, but with a local surprise inside. Dipped into some tartar sauce (although I later learned I should have dipped it into the chowder), these became very dangerous very quickly.
Less guilt-inducing (but no less delicious) were the local oysters from Matunuck Oyster Bar. We got a sampler of a few different nearby oysters, but our favorites were the ones the restaurant harvests in their own aquatic backyard.
It was so worth the drive out to this overly crowded restaurant just to stand at the oyster bar and slurp down the freshest, most local bivalves. These had a thick cup with a briny, sweet flavor. I wish we could have stayed for a full dinner, but the oysters hit the spot.
And I haven’t even talked about the two great ambitious dinners we had, focusing on local food. Birch in Providence was a fun time with some surprising flavors and an affordable tasting menu, but it ended up being a bit too heady and over-the-top for me. I much prefered the three courses at Tallulah in Newport, which served one excellent plate of food after another.
I thought a long weekend would have been enough time to sample the iconic food of the tiny state of Rhode Island. Boy, was I wrong! I was just getting started….
As an added bonus, here are two Tastemade videos I made showcasing some of Rhode Island’s iconic dishes: