A Taste of Providence: Sampling Rhode Island’s Quirky Cuisine
By Esha Samajpati
Rhode Island is America’s smallest state and part of Southern New England, but when it comes to matters of the palate, it plays by its own rules. Some of the names that pop up on menus across the state are downright puzzling, even for people from nearby states.
Rhode Islanders love their coffee milk, party pizza, Del’s lemonade, Awful Awful (milk, flavored syrup, and a particular mix of frozen ice milk), johnny cakes, cabinets (frappes), clam cakes and chowder, vinegar with French fries and New York System wieners (hot dogs) to name a few.
Another state specialty is the Rhody accent, mainly the dropped Rs, but with plenty of variations and exceptions. You think the capital city of Providence, with its multicultural populace is able to sustain the peculiarities of the state?
You bet your “chowda” it does.
All the Way up the Arm
Sometime in the late 1930s, a few Greek immigrants from New York moved to Providence and the surrounding region. They were in the business of making hot dogs and decided to keep the New York name for familiarity and maybe a touch of credibility.
Recently featured on Food Network, the Olneyville New York System is the best according to many locals but of course, as with the spelling (weiners vs. wieners), the opinions vary.
“The neighborhood is in transition,” warns Brian Hodge, even as he swears by the taste. “There’s another gem of a joint up on Smith Hill, the Original New York System,” he adds. Having worked in Providence for many years, Hodge knows his way around the city.
Open as they are till 3 am on weekends, in a city with a large student population, these hot wiener joints make for the perfect post-party pre-hangover fix. The steamed buns are lined “all the way up d’ahm” till the elbow, a small hot dog is stuffed into each and then mustard, meat sauce, chopped onions and celery salt is added in quick succession.
Tasty enough but if you find yourself concerned with the hygiene factor, you can have yours the ordinary way or go to places like Tini and the Duck and Bunny for swanky variations.
These wieners are alternatively known as gaggers, destroyers and belly-busters. Seventies musician and present-day writer David Byrne of Talking Heads fame once worked in the Original New York System while he was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design.
There is a rumor that the chopping action along his arm in the video ‘Once in a Lifetime’ was inspired by how they make the hot dogs. But in a 2006 Pitchfork interview, Byrne clarifies that he got the idea from a bunch of Japanese kids dancing in a park in Tokyo.
Another city favorite is party pizza, strips of thick-crust pizza with no cheese on them. Don’t go looking for them in pizzerias; the local bakery will almost always have a fresh batch ready.
Although coffee milk (milk with sweet coffee syrup) beat Del’s frozen lemonade to become the official state drink in 1993, it’s tough to choose between the two. I picked up a cup of lemonade from a cart near Waterplace Park when we were watching the WaterFire Festival and found it to be worthy of being a contender for top state drink.
Wolfing down my hot wieners in Olneyville, I thought I had finally figured out the local food scene, when I heard a man ordering beef stew at a nearby table.
“Go easy on the ketchup”, he said. Curious, I asked around and found out that in New York System talk, “beef stew” means an order of French fries topped off with salt, vinegar, and ketchup. I rest my case.
Fine Dining at Gracie’s
Oddities aside, Providence is replete with boutique restaurants, owned and operated by chefs, many of them graduates in Culinary Arts from the city’s renowned Johnson and Wales University. The options for farm-to-table dining were plenty, but my husband and I decided to try Gracie’s on Washington Street to get our very first taste of roof-to-table dining.
Ellen Gracyalny, the soft-spoken owner of Gracie’s is a Johnson & Wales trained chef. She feels fortunate to be along the water as local fishermen deliver the freshest seafood to her kitchen.
“We change the menu every week. We source our arugula, pea tendrils and herbs from Debbie Barrett of Allen Farm’s in Westport, Massachusetts; farm fresh eggs from Michele Kozloski of Zephyr Farm in Cranston, Rhode Island; whole milk from Rhody Fresh in Foster, Rhode Island; macomber turnips, tomatoes, cucumbers, beets from Schartner Farm in Exeter, Rhode Island as well as Gracie’s own produce from our rooftop garden,” she further explains.
A few blocks from the restaurant, atop the Peerless Building, is the rooftop garden that grows fruits, vegetables, edible flowers and herbs.
Seated comfortably at Gracie’s, we ordered a bottle of red and waited for the chef’s tasting menu. Executive chef Matthew Varga, a Johnson and Wales graduate believes, “Food grown locally in its peak season has richer flavors. It allows us as chefs to prepare the dishes simply and let the taste on the plate speak for itself.”
We started off with the Heirloom Tomato Salad, which had local cheese producer Narragansett Creamery’s ricotta, Allen farm’s arugula, aged balsamic and a crispy parmesan cracker. The tomatoes were from the rooftop garden, which, incidentally, is tended by John Sanford, a man of very few words. But he did let us in on their latest venture, the Violet Jasper, which is a kind of dark purplish-red tomato with green streaks. As for the ones on my plate, it is enough to say that one bite of the succulent fruit and I’m a locavore for life.
The next day, the better part of our morning was spent wandering in and out of shops on Federal Hill nibbling on cheese, olives, prosciutto, artisan bread, cookies and wine. Often referred to as “the hill,” this is a slice of Providence where thick Italian accents, old-world bakeries and art galleries hold sway.
Originally this area was the land separating the Narragansett and Wampanoag Indian tribes; now it’s a plethora of restaurants, cafes, and specialty shops.
We met with Cindy Salvato, our Savoring Federal Hill tour guide and fourteen other guests near the three-tier fountain at DePasquale Plaza. The tour had the usual components of a culinary excursion and did much to reveal the bond that Italians share with their food. For them, it is not just about the seasoning or the sauce; it’s about tradition, family and shared experiences.
‘Eat Local, Eat Smart’ is the New Mantra
Well, it is impossible to talk about food and not mention the word “locavore”. But notice how it no longer invites quizzical glances at a dinner party? As a nation we are moving towards responsible and healthier food habits, which is evident in the growing number of places committed to local-sourcing.
AS220 FOO(d) at 115 Empire street is an art space/restaurant whose mission is to support local artists and entrepreneurs. The place is easy on the pocket and a hit with the city’s vegan diners. Only Rhody-raised meat and close-to-home produce is used to prepare a variety of items, most of which can be tweaked to satisfy vegetarians, vegans and people with food allergies or dietary restrictions.
“While meat can be found on the menu, this place offers a great number of vegan options. One of my favorite dishes is crispy chickpeas with garlic, basil and paprika. The chickpeas are the perfect side dish, but they are also a delicious meal on their own,” says Gail Carvelli, director of a brand communications firm in Providence.
If you have a sweet tooth, you will be happy to know that Providence’s first cupcake truck, the Sugarush Truck has started making the rounds. It’s a 1953 International Metro Van converted into a bakery-on-wheels and keeping with the trend, all ingredients are seasonal and locally sourced, while the menu includes vegan items. You can follow @sugarushtruck on twitter for exact locations and flavors of the day.
After spending a weekend in ‘Rhode Island’s Creative Capital,’ I am all set to tag it as a foodie destination, one that deserves a round of applause for being creative, hip and environmentally conscious.
If You Go:
Here’s a list of restaurants and for those of you interested in adding a touch of history to your late-night burgers, the Haven Brothers Diner in Providence is believed to be the birthplace of the diner. It’s mobile so you may need some local expertise in finding it. You could also check out the Culinary Arts Museum at the Johnson and Wales University.
Read Esha Samajpati’s story: Sights and Sounds of Providence: Rhode Island’s Creative Capital
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