The Ocean State is justifiably known for its food – particularly its seafood – and as a visitor you're going to want to familiarize yourself with it before making a dinner reservation. Though we share many of the staples of New England cuisine – clam chowder, lobster with drawn butter, fish and chips – we also have some unique offerings or peculiar twists on the classics. This handy primer will help you eat your way through the Ocean State.
These larger, hard-shell clams are about as close to an official state food as Rhode Island has. Depending on who’s doing the talking, you may hear it pronounced quaw-hog or koe-hog, but everyone can agree that they’re delicious and versatile, popping up in a number of staple Rhode Island dishes. And despite what Family Guy would have you believe, there is no town in this state named after them.
Folks expecting a clam version of something similar to a Maryland style crab cake may be surprised when they order a half-dozen clam cakes and get a paper bag filled with something more akin to a fritter. These little balls of fried dough are studded with bits of clam, and tearing into a piping hot batch of them on the way home from the beach is a true summer tradition around here.
Clam cakes without chowder would be like a grilled cheese without tomato soup. Typical New England (white) chowder is generally the standard around here. The one to really look out for, however, is the uniquely Rhode Island clear chowder, which allows the clam to be the star of the dish, with the broth, potatoes and maybe some bacon playing supporting roles.
Rounding out the Holy Trinity of Quahog is the iconic stuffed clam (pictured above). Though every Rhode Islander worth his or her salt has a preferred recipe for chowder and clam cakes, and a lifelong allegiance to particular restaurant’s version, the stuffie is truly the dish that provides the most variations on the basic recipe – and the most heated arguments about which is the best. The fundamentals are clear: chopped quahog with a bready stuffing, baked in its own shell. But from there, everyone does it a little bit differently, adding things like sausage, bacon, peppers, corn – as long as it’s served with a slice of lemon and a bottle of hot sauce on the side, there’s really no wrong way.
If you get through a whole vacation without eating fried seafood on paper plates from a clam shack, your time in Rhode Island is not complete. A heaping plate of perfectly fried clams, or perhaps a fried clam roll served on a hot dog bun, is a must when you’re in South County.
Nothing says packing a cooler for the beach quite like bakery pizza strips – at least not in Rhode Island. They’re cheap, easily portable and stay delicious in adverse conditions. (They hold up far better in prolonged sun exposure than, say, chicken salad.) The formula is simple: good, thick, doughy crust topped with a heavy, richly spiced tomato sauce. Some versions sprinkle on a bit of grated parmesan. Every bakery’s is a little different, but no occasion for outdoor summer eating is complete without a box of them.
Also known as belly busters or gaggers (gaggahs, if you’re pronouncing it like a true Rhode Islander), these are truly the guiltiest pleasure on the list. These small, natural casing hot dogs (that bear almost as much resemblance to a
mini-bratwurst as they do your traditional ballpark frank) are topped with mustard, meat sauce, chopped onions and celery salt and served on a steamed bun. Though you can find them all over the state at all hours of the day, the late night diner trip is really the way it should be done.
Coffee Milk/Frozen Lemonade
These two are grouped together, not because of any similarities, but because some years back they faced off for bragging rights as the official state beverage. In the end, coffee milk won out. It’s a mixture of fresh, cold milk with slightly sweet coffee syrup that is guaranteed to put a smile under any milk mustache. However, the venerable frozen lemonade is not to be underestimated. A cool, refreshing slush of ice, lemonade and sometimes bits of lemon is available in many variations, but the gold standard is Del’s (pictured above), an iconic local brand you’ll see everywhere during the summer.