Ocean State Eats: Rhode Island's Most-Iconic Dishes

From creamy coffee milk to the freshest calamari, here are a few of Little Rhody's most-iconic dishes — and the best spots to score them.

By: Alex Van Buren

Photo By: Nick Caito ©2016

Photo By: Michael Cevoli ©2017

Photo By: Nick Caito ©2016

Photo By: Nick Caito ©2016

Photo By: Nick Caito ©2016

Photo By: Nick Caito ©2016

Photo By: Nick Caito ©2016

Photo By: Ron Cowie ©2016

Photo By: Nick Caito ©2016

Photo By: Blount Market ©2016

Photo By: Nick Caito ©2016

Photo By: Nick Caito ©2016

Photo By: Allie's Donuts ©2017

Photo By: Nick Caito ©2016

Photo By: Nick Caito ©2016

Photo By: Castle Hill Inn ©2016

Photo By: Hemenway's Restaurant ©2016

Photo By: Hudson Street Deli ©2017

Photo By: Spirito's Restaurant ©2017

Clam Cakes, Coffee Milk and More

Who knew that a little state of about 1,500 square miles could have so many darn iconic foods? Rhode Island is brimming with dishes that induce heated arguments — where to get the best grinders, the best dynamites and hot weiners, for starters. Confused? Settle in over some coffee milk or a cabinet, and allow us to explain a few Ocean State greats — and share the best spots to snag 'em.

Illustration by Hello Neighbor Designs

Coffee Milk

Nearly 100 years old, coffee milk is so iconic here that it became the official state drink in 1993. Coffee-and-sugar syrup is spun with frosty milk for an ice cream-free riff on a milkshake that’s as addictive as it is simple. You'll find it at coffee shops across Rhode Island, but skip the versions made with artificial ingredients and try those prepared with good coffee and sugar. Dave Lanning, CEO of Dave’s Coffee in Providence and Charlestown, roasts and cold-brews Brazilian beans and simmers the result with pure cane sugar to make the beloved syrup that forms the drink’s base. (People even buy the syrup online!)

Go to: Dave's Coffee

Irish Brown Bread

The only bread you'll find at Bywater, a cozy seafood restaurant in Warren that specializes in super-fresh fish and local oysters, is Irish brown bread. The recipe hails straight from chef and co-owner Brian O’Donnell’s Irish grandmother. You know it's authentic because “the first step in the [written] recipe is ‘take your rings off,’” says O’Donnell with a laugh. At Bywater, he makes his own take on his mother’s adaptation, using sweet buttermilk, wheat bran, flour, baking soda and baking powder for a dense, hearty bread with a delicate crumb, and serves it alongside butter whipped with Greek yogurt and Maldon sea salt.

Go to: Bywater

Frozen Lemonade

Del’s iconic frozen lemonade traces its origins back to 1840 in Naples, Italy. Great-grandfather DeLucia, the story goes, kept fresh snow insulated in caves with straw, mixing local lemons with the snow and some sugar when summer arrived. His son Franco brought the frozen lemonade recipe to America around 1900, and by 1948 Franco’s son Angelo was selling a version of it that was made using a machine. With a texture smartly described as “somewhere between an Italian ice and a Slurpee,” the sweet-tart treat has found fans all over the state. Try it at the Cranston store or one of the dozens of outposts across the state.

Go to: Del's Lemonade

Doughboys

They look like doughnuts on steroids, sure, but David Gravino of Iggy’s would have you know there’s a difference: “They’re more like a bread dough, but a little sweeter. There’s no hole in it, and they’re fluffy and very airy and light.” Not only that, but some people dip ’em in marinara sauce! When’s the last time you did that to a doughnut? Typically, however, they come dusted with sugar and cinnamon. The family-owned restaurant has been in business since 1989, making doughboy dough every hour. As Gravino says, “That’s the magic.”

Go to: Iggy’s Doughboys & Chowder House

Cabinets

Located just steps from the Palmer River waterfront in Warren, Delekta Pharmacy pays homage to a bygone era, right down to the vanilla and cherry Cokes made on-site from soda syrup and seltzer. Among the most-popular beverages here is the Coffee Cabinet, for which soda jerks (staffers!) boil coffee into a syrup, combine it with ice cream and milk, and serve it in a tall glass. Cabinets, which also come in vanilla or chocolate, are similar to milkshakes, and to the frappes so common across the Massachusetts border (“bohdah,” if you have the local accent). “They’re the same thing,” says third-generation co-owner Eric Delekta … diplomatically.

Go to: Delekta Pharmacy

Hermit Cookies

Although this Providence bakery is known for its coconut custard pies, Italian Christmas cookies and cupcakes, those in the know ask for DeLuise's hermit cookies. When asked about the cookie’s origins, owner Sal DeLuise says that “old-timers came up with it” and that frugal times inspired a cookie that reused other doughs in the kitchen. “It’s a very, very good-tasting cookie if you incorporate everything and add fresh ingredients,” he notes. “It’s a conglomerate of many different pastries, blended together with eggs, sugar, flour and molasses.” The cookies are aromatic and sweet, and are cut into large rectangles that are iconic of the Ocean State. 
 

Go to: DeLuise Bakery

Hot Weiners

Ask Little Rhody natives which foods make them homesick and “hot weiners!” will be some of the first (bizarre) words out of their mouths. Messy and fun, hot weiners are the sloppy joes of the frankfurter world and have been a favorite here since they hit local menus in the 1940s. Gregory Stevens is the fourth-generation co-owner of Olneyville New York System, two shops slinging snappy beef-pork-veal dogs strewn with spiced ground hamburger, onions, mustard and celery salt, served on plush rolls from a nearby Greek bakery. “The secret is our mix of spices,” says Stevens of the family’s closely guarded sauce recipe.

Go to: Olneyville N.Y. System

Clams Casino

“Farm to table and pond to plate” is the slogan at Matunuck Oyster Bar in South Kingstown, where fresh oysters and clams are harvested right off the waterfront patio daily. Clams casino is a dish that was “a staple in Rhode Island clam shacks and finer-dining restaurants,” says owner Perry Raso, who traveled all over the state with his chef in order to perfect their version. Littlenecks stuffed with bell peppers, bacon and breadcrumbs, usually laced with sherry, have been beloved in this state for years. Matunuck’s Clams Casino is distinctive because of the freshness of the clams — and because the restaurant uses local peppers from its own vegetable farm.

Go to: Matunuck Oyster Bar

Pizza Strips

Caserta in Providence offers saucy, cheeseless pizza strips that are as hot with hung-over college kids as they are with workaday men and women seeking a lunch fix. According to manager John Campagnone Jr., “It’s all consistency — that’s what makes us great. We use all the best ingredients, but that’s all I can tell you.” He’s served the pizza strips (sometimes referred to as “bakery-style pizza”) the same way for decades, using California tomatoes and the same type of dough used for regular slices.

Go to: Caserta Pizzeria

Kale Soup (Caldo Verde)

Nearby Fall River and New Bedford, Massachusetts — in addition to parts of Rhode Island — have huge Portuguese populations, so you’ll see classic variations of the beloved caldo verde, sometimes called “kale soup,” dotting menus throughout the region. The chunky soup features a chicken broth base amped up with potatoes, onions, plenty of kale and often chorizo. At Blount Market in Warren, the top-selling kale soup is available fresh or frozen and uses local chorizo from Amaral’s, a bit of paprika, and kidney beans “to make it more of an all-round hearty soup,” says Chef Jeff Wirtz.

Go to: Blount Market

Clam Cakes

Aunt Carrie's in Narragansett is a New Englander’s paradise, with its generous platters of steamed clams, lobsters, clam bellies and the like. But it’s the deep-fried clam cakes that really elicit rave reviews. The batter is prepared in a huge cement mixer (that’s never used for cement, of course), and the cakes feature fresh chopped clams, flour, water and seasoning. They’re dropped into super-hot beef shortening and emerge crisp, redolent of the sea and ready to be dipped into Carrie’s wholesome chowder. Order up, then grab a seat with a romantic view of Point Judith Lighthouse.

Go to: Aunt Carrie's

Johnnycakes

Those who love johnnycakes — a cornbread-pancake hybrid — really love them, says Kathryn Madden, co-owner of the restaurant that’s located in a gorgeous restored barn in Adamsville and aptly named The Barn. Made from cornmeal ground just across the street at Gray’s grist mill — “continuously grinding for over 360 years” — they are toothsome, and especially tasty with maple syrup. Johnnycakes date back hundreds of years in America, and this is just the place to try them for the first time.

 

Go to: The Barn

Doughnut Cake

A doughnut cake in the shape of a princess? A plane? A coffee mug? A pig? Anything seems to be possible at Allie's Donuts in North Kingstown, where brightly decorated, soft, airy doughnuts — and oversized doughnut cakes — lure crowds that sometimes stretch around the block. Managers here deal with tons of birthday and even wedding requests for oddball doughnut cakes, so don’t think your order will strike them as unusual.

 

Go to: Allie's Donuts

Stuffies

At restaurants all over New England, giant quahog clams, which are known for their sweet meat, are stuffed with bread, spices, onions and sometimes chorizo. The dish, fittingly dubbed “stuffies,” is a favorite among locals. At Amaral’s in Warren, the stuffies are served super fresh, straight out of the oven, with a lemon wedge. Tony Amaral, who co-owns the restaurant with brother Donald, shucks the quahogs daily and chops them up to combine them with onions, crushed pepper flakes, toasted Italian bread and a little bit of their own briny juice. It’s a fair bet that your first stuffie won’t be your last.

Go to: Amaral's Fish & Chips

Rhode Island Clam Chowder

Another hit from the Amaral brothers, this Rhode Island-style clam chowder is made from the clear, natural quahog clam juice they use as its base. Expect potatoes, celery, onion and tons of freshly chopped quahogs. “Some people make it with a lot of veggies,” says Chef Tony Amaral, but he prefers to go lighter on the veg, allowing the oceanic quahog brine to shine through. This is the chowder to order if you’re a true clam lover; the red (Manhattan) version masks the taste with tomatoes, and the New England version — though delicious — cloaks it with cream.

Go to: Amaral's Fish & Chips

Clambakes

Just as you wouldn’t turn down an invitation to an authentic New Orleans crawfish boil, no one should ever shy away from a chance to experience a real New England clambake. Clams nestle in a beachside pit with corn, potatoes, lobsters, sausage and other goodies until the smoky, fire-roasted gems are ready to be served and washed down with a cold beer. If you want someone else to do the work, Newport's Castle Hill Inn has a summer clambake for $95 a pop (not including drinks). You get clam chowder, lobster, chorizo, littlenecks, jalapeno-cheddar cornbread, apple pie with ice cream, peach sweet tea and croquet, with a view of the Newport harbor. Not too shabby.

Go to: Castle Hill Inn

Calamari

Rhode Island’s Point Judith is renowned as the source of some of the best squid in New England. Calamari — sometimes called calama’ if the restaurant is really Italian — is enormously popular statewide. At Hemenway's, another one of Providence's upscale seafood hubs, it is lightly fried and tossed in a garlic-butter sauce with a mix of sweet and hot peppers, emerging golden, piping hot and ready to devour.

Go to: Hemenway's

Grinders

Hudson Street Deli in Providence is famous for its Italian grinder, which is loaded up with ham, Genoa salami, pepperoni, provolone, tomato, lettuce, onion, banana peppers, olive oil, vinegar, Italian salsa verde and mayo. (Locals pronounce it “GRIN-dah,” so start practicing!) To the best of co-owner Chrissy Teck’s knowledge, the major difference between a regular sub and a grinder is the bread, which is “heartier than you would think” and “fresher than a sub.” Considering the sheer number of ingredients that get piled on top, it’s no wonder the bread has to be so sturdy. A half-sandwich order should do you; “the large is like the size of a newborn,” Teck says.

Go to: Hudson Street Deli

Snail Salad

Tender, locally sourced sea snails are the base of the snail salad at Spirito's, a white-tablecloth Italian eatery located in one of Providence's stately Victorian homes. “We clean the snails, boil them till tender, chunk it up, then add celery, onions, lemon, seasonings, salt, pepper, garlic, red pepper and olive oil,” says chef and co-owner David Spirito. Straight up, just like that, snails with dressing, we ask? “Straight up, but nobody can make it the same!” he says with a laugh. Spirito co-owns the restaurant with brother Gregory, and has for 16 years, so you’re supporting a family affair when dining here.

Go to: Spirito's Restaurant