Clamming Up in Rhode Island
Sunday, August 13, 2006
America's smallest state has become a modern unit of measurement, a supersize update of yesterday's football fields and aircraft carriers. According to various reports, there are icebergs, asteroids, nuclear proving grounds, algae blooms and American cities "the size of Rhode Island." Rhode Islanders are okay with this dearth of earth, however, because when a state is only 48 miles long by 37 wide and nearly 10 percent of that state is salt water, nobody lives very far from a beach, boat ramp or, most important, clam shack.
In summer, a great thalassic yearning washes over Rhode Islanders from Woonsocket to Westerly, drawing them to swim, sail, fish -- and eat. Rhode Island may lack the wide-open spaces and purple mountain majesties of bigger states, but its clam-shack cuisine probably beats what they're eating this summer in Nebraska and Wyoming.
Strictly speaking, a clam shack is a building of doubtful permanence built around a fry-o-later and a fridge, with windows where customers order and collect. But clam-shack cuisine is also served in shoreline restaurants several cuts above the classic shack. The fare at all of these eateries only begins with New England seacoast standards, such as scallops and schrod. Thanks to waves of immigration that began when Samuel Slater brought the Industrial Revolution from England to Pawtucket more than 200 years ago, menus also include the likes of English/Irish fish and chips, Portuguese chourico sausage and Italian clams zuppa. Add natural chowder, stuffies, doughboys, Del's Frozen Lemonade and Gray's ice cream -- and you've got the Ocean State's unique summer cuisine.
Healthy? Who said anything about healthy? Anyway, you don't eat this stuff every day, only on the days you'll remember when winter comes.
When it comes to the fine points that elevate one eatery's fried clams or lobster roll above another's, loyalties are strong and disagreements sharp. I wouldn't dare offer a definitive list, even after living and eating in Rhode Island for the best parts of three decades. What I can do is cite some recently revisited personal favorites, buttressed by firm suggestions from people I'd like to keep as friends. One caution: Clam-shack cuisine began as an inexpensive food for working folks, but with fish and shellfish prices rising, this summer even an order of fried clams may be listed like lobster at "market price."
Much of Little Rhody's clam-shack cuisine is concentrated in Narragansett, along Ocean Road and Sand Hill Cove Road, or in the fishing port of Galilee. The Starboard Galley (190 Ocean Rd., Narragansett, 401-782-1366) is at the end of State Pier 5, next to Narragansett Town Beach. These landmarks are vital because nobody knows where the "Starboard Galley" is. Locals know the place as "Best Chowda," because that's what it says on the front of the building, and pretty much everyone agrees. Then, too, many come just for the fish and chips, fried clams or clam cakes.
On a July afternoon, chowder champ Tom Silvia is working the fryer for a line of customers that includes a Sears repairman, a couple of burly community police officers off a boat down the pier, barefoot teenagers covertly checking each other out, a trio of big guys with in-state accents and granular voices, and a couple of moms restraining breakaway tots.
At one of Tom's picnic tables, my Narragansett friend Elaine and I sit watching a tanker cross the distant horizon. We've joined a tourist from New Jersey who's eating his first clam cake. He'll never eat a better one. Tom's clam cakes are as big as tennis balls, fried crusty and bumpy, seasoned to a peppery kick and, unlike some in this era of high shellfish prices, thick with clams.
Maybe it's the canola oil or maybe it's the crackery crunch that jackets my flounder, but they could call this place "Best Fish and Chips" and get no argument from me. Since moving south a couple of years ago, I've missed the treat my kids used to call "fishin' ships." I mean the real thing, the kind that starts with translucent fresh cod, haddock or flounder, dipped in a batter that doesn't shuck off like a wet winter coat after the deep fry. At the end of Pier 5, I reconnect with what I've missed. The paper plate in front of me is weighted by three golden slabs of fish resting on a hummock of French fries; my plastic fork cracks a crisp golden crust, and the fish inside is fresh as the breeze.
This fall, Silvia is moving to a new location in Charlestown, 13 miles and 25 minutes down the coast. But for now, the line forms at the end of Pier 5.
Fish and chips are fried with beer batter, served smoking hot, and there's malt vinegar on the table at Hammerhead Grill (1230 Ocean Rd., Narragansett, 401-789-6159). A casual restaurant above a local fisherman's bar, Hammerhead also has linguine and clams, fried scallops, clams on the half shell and a vista few spots can match. An ever-changing water view from the open-air deck stretches over shorebird marshes and on down the beach to the lighthouse at Point Judith.
Several famous clam shacks are clustered nearby. Long lines extend from Iggy's Doughboys & Chowder House (1157 Point Judith Rd., Narragansett, 401-783-5608) -- patient customers waiting for sausage and peppers, fried calamari, fried clams or maybe Iggy's famous doughboys (deep-fried pizza dough; see glossary) with three choices of sugar. This is a seasonal branch; another in Warwick's Oakland Beach neighborhood is open all year, although it is being demolished and rebuilt, so it will be closed this winter to reopen probably in spring.