On Friday at an Irish pub called O’Hara’s in the Newton Highlands part of Massachusetts, my friends and I, all visiting from Rhode Island, began our lunchtime food-and-drink excursion by glancing at the appetizers. At the top of the list was calamari, served “traditional” and “Rhode Island style.” So we asked the waitress: How do you make the Rhode Island style?
“Comes with banana peppers and garlic butter.”
“And the traditional?”
“Comes without those things.”
A day later, I talked with a couple of folks from Connecticut, who said that menus in the Nutmeg State increasingly refer to “Rhode Island-style calamari.” Some diners have even found it on menus in southern California. There are subtle variations, but the gist is hot cherry peppers (served as rings) or banana peppers (or both), cooked in garlic butter or garlic and oil. Often a small condiment serving of marinara sauce accompanies. In general, it’s a spicier and greasier version of the dish and famed New England chef Jasper White pays tribute to those qualities by calling his flavorful version, “Spicy and Greasy Rhode Island Calamari.”
In the past year, Rhode Island has been referred to as “the squid capital of the East Coast,” with more than 7 million pounds caught in local waters. Last fall Bryan Rourke of the ProJo reported it this way: “Squid is to Rhode Island what lobster is to Maine; cod is to Massachusetts.”
But the Rhody cuisine renaissance isn’t limited to calamari. Clear-broth Rhode Island chowder, sometimes called South County chowder hereabouts, is also making its way onto more menus, along with variations of white, from the thick, stick-a-spoon-in-it-and-it-won’t-move versions popular in Boston and Cape Cod to the thinner milky versions, locally called Newport chowder. One food Web site reported that “Rhode Island Red chowder” is gaining fans as well, popping up on regional menus, elbowing its way as a soup du jour as something distinct from Manhattan chowder, far spicier and creamier than its New York-dubbed cousin.
In some Rhode Island restaurants (and, I’ve heard, Long Island ones as well), we’ve had a clam chowder variant that could be called “dirty chowder” or “gray chowder,” being a blending of the clear and milky chowders. Perhaps it should be called “New England skim chowder.” Long Island food shacks have also popularized a mix of the red and white chowders. One of my friends calls that “Long Island chowder,” although I’m not sure anyone over the Throgs Neck Bridge would be able to identify it as such.
The predominance of food shows on TV, easy recipe hunting on the Internet, a growing awareness of regional cuisines and ubiquitous kitchen experimentation has led to the discovery of Rhode Island’s notoriously insular food culture on plates and platters outside the state. Can anyone envision the day when French cafes, along with their croissants and brie, will offer Rhode Island New York System hot wieners? (Wouldn’t be the same without the neon sign in the window.)
What will be the next Rhode Island food to go national?