Quintessential, Quirky Rhode Island: What to Eat

In teeny Rhode Island, our usual city spotlight becomes a state spotlight—and what a state for local food it is. Hot wiener with coffee milk, anyone?  

Raw local oysters and clams in Rhode Island
Local seafood in Providence

We’d heard of the hot dog with the funny name—the New York system—likely from a TV show over the years. But that was pretty much the extent of our knowledge, pre-research, of typical Rhode Island eats. Then we heard from Dayna, a family friend and Cranston local whom we’d emailed for initial ideas. She replied with a laundry list of “oddies,” as she called them, and nearly introduced us to a whole new vocabulary in the process: gaggahs with the works, awful awful, doughboys, stuffies. Is Rhode Island run by babies?? we wondered. Of course not. But there’s something besides the quirky names that makes these local dishes truly unique in this country, and that’s this: Many will be unrecognizable to out-of-towners, even to those from just over the state line.

We were intrigued enough to drive ourselves all over the state, following recommendations from Dayna, online forums, and a Providence waiter who sent us on a spontaneous mission for the best pizza strips. “Rhody” cuisine, we learned, is strongly influenced by the Italian, the Portuguese, the Native Americans, and, of course, the sea. In our new Rhode Island snapshot, we present 10 tasty reasons to return, again and again. Here’s a little appetizer:

Clear clam chowder from Providence, Rhode Island

Clear clam chowder
While you’ll also find plenty of the white (New England-style) and red (Manhattan) varieties, Rhode Island has its very own entry in the chowdah world: clear clam chowder. The base is simply clam juice, flavored with onion, celery, Worcestershire sauce, some fresh herbs, and black pepper, and then beefed up with diced potatoes and, of course, local clams. You’ll often see some salt pork in there; a little milk and butter to finish is optional. As you might guess, this chowder makes a fine base for the other two chowders, but in Rhody? No cream or tomatoes needed. The idea is to let the clam flavor shine.
Read more about clear clam chowder in Rhode Island

Pizza strips from a Rhode Island bakery

Pizza strips
Rhode Island pizza comes from bakeries, not pizza parlors; it’s cheeseless, heavy on the tomato sauce, and eaten at room temperature. Intrigued? You should be. Pizza strips, as they’re called here, are simply a thick doughy base—almost like a focaccia bread—slathered with fresh tomato sauce and baked in large trays. Sometimes there’s a hint of rosemary or basil or a dusting of parmesan cheese, but that’s essentially it. Yes, it’s more like “tomato bread” than anything resembling pizza, but don’t get hung up on the name. Long a staple of local kids’ birthday parties and cookouts, pizza strips are fun, on-the-go food—and pretty satisfying when fresh and well made.
Read more about pizza strips in Rhode Island

A New York system, or hot wiener, hot dog from Rhode Island

New York system (a.k.a. hot wiener)
Perhaps the most famous regional style of hot dog on the East Coast, the New York system, a.k.a. the hot wiener or gagger (“gaggah”), is a Rhode Island original: a natural-casing frankfurter, usually made of pork and veal, in a steamed bun topped with mustard, chopped onion, celery salt, and a “secret” (ground beef) meat sauce. Much like Detroit’s Coney Island dog, the relation to New York is unclear other than as a likely marketing strategy back in the early 1900s, when hot dogs first started appearing in Rhode Island (New York was hot dog central in the U.S. at that time). It wasn’t until around the 1940s, though, that this particular style of dawg really developed among Providence’s Greek hot dog vendors. Of course, some locals may claim they’re not “hot dogs” at all—roped together, the wieners are red-orange in color and cut short; they have square, not round, ends; they’re not all-beef. But to an outsider, the regional distinction is all about what goes on top. And who doesn’t like celery salt on their wieners?
Read more about New York systems/hot wieners in Rhode Island

A glass of coffee milk from Rhode Island

Coffee milk
It is, simply, milk flavored with coffee syrup—just as chocolate milk is flavored with chocolate syrup. But coffee milk is the state drink of Rhode Island (since 1993), so you shouldn’t leave the state without trying it. According to the New York Times, it likely originated with diner and drugstore owners who served leftover coffee grounds with a whole lot of milk and sugar, thereby creating a drink impossible not to love. The first coffee syrup came out of Warwick in 1938, from a brand called Eclipse; today Autocrat is the leading producer, having acquired Eclipse and another company, Coffee Time, over the years. Considering the drink’s delicious sweetness, pleasing in such a childlike way, and the types of lunch-counter establishments that traditionally serve it, coffee milk reminded us just a little of our beloved New York egg cream. But this drink is Rhode Island through and through. Also, it’s definitely more sugar than caffeine, so look elsewhere for an actual java fix.
Read more about coffee milk in Rhode Island

Stuffies, or stuffed quahogs, from Rhode Island

Stuffed quahogs, or stuffies, are popular elsewhere in New England, but only in Rhode Island are there annual Quahog festivals (in Warren) and a fictional town called Quahog in a popular American TV show (Family Guy). Quahogs, of course, are the large hard-shelled clams native to this area, the ones used in the chowders and clam cakes. “Quahog” comes from the Narragansett Indian name "poquaûhock"; the Narragansetts cultivated the clams for food and ornaments, and introduced them to the area’s first European settlers. For this dish, the clam meat gets chopped up and mixed with bread crumbs, herbs, and finely diced onion, bell pepper, and celery. The whole savory mess is then baked in a clam shell—and devoured across the region.
Read more about stuffies in Rhode Island

Clam cakes from Iggy's in Rhode Island

Clam cakes
These clam fritters are as dear to Rhode Islanders’ hearts as, well, stuffed clams and clam chowder. Notice a theme here? Misshapen balls of fried dough, golden-crispy on the outside and steamy-soft on the inside, they are more akin to beignets with the addition of ground clams than other seafood “cakes,” like crab cakes. Definitely a guilty pleasure, and lots of fun to eat come summertime.
Read more about clam cakes in Rhode Island

Also on our list? Portuguese and Italian grinders, local seafood, doughboys, and Del's Lemonade. Check out our full Rhode Island section for more!

Published On: October 24, 2013

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