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Clamming Up in Rhode Island
Seafood Shacks: Shabby but Sublime

By Carol McCabe
Special to The Washington Post
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.

Few local spots are open for breakfast. An exception is Wiley's (1200 Ocean Rd., Narragansett, 401-792-8811), open for breakfast Fridays through Sundays, where you can start your day with a stack of Rhode Island jonnycakes (cornmeal pancakes; see glossary for the all-important difference between jonnycakes and johnnycake).

Champlin's Seafood Deck, a fish market and restaurant, is a landmark on the busy fishing dock at Galilee (256 Great Island Rd., Narragansett, 401-783-3152). I like Champlin's classic lobster roll, a heap of sweet lobster meat packed onto a hot dog bun that has been toasted and buttered, the whole thing presented in a traditional cardboard boat. Order food at one window in the upper deck restaurant, drinks at another, look at the 1954 hurricane photos while you wait, then take it outside. Rough tables overlook the inlet between Galilee and the cottages of Jerusalem across the way; at midday, fishing boats come in, circled by gulls, to dock below. At an adjacent pier, the Block Island Ferry blasts its intention to depart.

Fish for the restaurant and the retail market below is bought from local boats like those whose life preservers line the outer walls: Fran Marie, Cindy Lou, Little Joe and others. Choose your own lobster from the fish store and the cooks upstairs will prepare it for you for an additional $3 to cover butter and handling.

On the east side of Narragansett Bay is Bristol, halfway between Providence and Newport. In a town where many are descended from Cape Verdean, Azorean or mainland Portuguese immigrants, many others from Italian forebears, food choices here include dishes from both countries' traditions.

Quito's (411 Thames -- pronounced "Thaymes" -- St., Bristol, 401-253-4500) is a family-owned business in an unprepossessing building perched on the edge of Bristol Harbor. This bare-bones restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating has a 54-year history and devoted fans. As this Norman Rockwellian town becomes what some locals lament as "the new Newport," Quito's clings to the waterside despite nudges from new condominium conversions and rising land values. That's just fine with lovers of littlenecks (served on the half-shell or in garlicky sauce), whole-bellied fried clams for the traditionalists, fried clam strips for the less adventurous, scallops and a whole school of other fishy things and Italian favorites. I like Quito's zuppa -- shellfish bathed in a light tomato, garlic and herb sauce and served over linguini. Broccoli is optional.

A block away is S.S. Dion (520 Thames St., Bristol, 401-253-2884), included here although it in no way resembles a clam shack because it serves what may be Rhode Island's consistently best fish dinners. The Dion, as fans call it, is known for treats including lobster, baked scallops and schrod, a fish that's hard to find and never as good outside New England. Co-owner and host Steve Dion buys from a respected Bristol fish dealer and a talented kitchen staff takes it from there.

On an evening early in July, outside tables overlooking the harbor fill early; the town is crowded for its upcoming Fourth of July celebration, America's oldest. At dinner with my friend Jack, who has seen me do this before, I ponder whether to choose schrod done simply with seasoned breadcrumbs; simmered with littlenecks, sweet and hot peppers, garlic, green onions and wine; or baked with fresh dill and shallot mustard sauce. I always give it lots of thought, then choose the third one.

Gray's Ice Cream has attracted Rhode Islanders to the town of Tiverton for many years, drawn by old fashioned ice cream like the kind I licked off the dasher as a dairy farm kid. It's so rich you can fairly taste the fat granules, and it's full of real fruits, nuts and chips. Now Gray's has a branch on the boardwalk at the foot of State Street in Bristol. During my visit, I manage to dig into the creamy depths of a scoop of Gray's ginger, studded with spicy nuggets. Someday I may try frozen pudding or pistachio, or maybe even slurp a coffee cabinet (a sort of milkshake), but only if the stand runs out of ginger.

Tiverton is eight miles southeast of Bristol and across two waterways, Mount Hope Bay and the Sakonnet River. Two of the state's most famous clam shacks stand along the 14-mile-long Sakonnet, not a true river but an inlet of the Atlantic on the state's easternmost edge. Crushed white clamshells surround Evelyn's Nanaquaket Drive-In (2335 Main Rd., Tiverton, 401-624-3100), a suggestion of what's luring cars to swing into the lot. Evelyn's menu, nothing if not eclectic, includes chow mein, meatloaf and Grape-Nuts pudding, a peculiar New England favorite. But the emphasis is clearly on clam strips, clam cakes, clam chowder, stuffies (stuffed clamshells) and lobster rolls. Evelyn's chowder is full of shellfish bits, and the generous stuffies are delicious, spicy and flecked with green pepper. There's a pleasant patio out back and a dock where small boats come and go. I'm a student of clam shack signs; one here reads "Public rest rooms located behind the red bus."

"Closed hurricanes" reads one faded sign at Flo's (4 Wave Ave., Middletown, 401-847-8141), across the road from salt water; "Welcome to Flo's, Famous for Clams Since 1936" reads another, proof that when it comes to hurricanes, Flo's knows. My friends Brian and Judy, clam connoisseurs, think Evelyn's clam cakes have a slight edge over Flo's, and Judy, thoughtfully chewing a fried clam, says, "I wish the bellies were bigger." But the chowder is fine, and we like the way Flo's keeps track of orders -- each customer is given a beach rock with a pickup number painted on it, something solid to hang onto as we wait. (A newer, busier branch of Flo's is near Easton's Beach, a few minutes from downtown Newport.)

As the day wanes, Brian insists that we stop at Anthony's (963 Aquidneck Ave., Middletown, 401-846-9620). Judy protests that it's not a clam shack and it's not on the water. Brian counters that Anthony's used to be on the water but it moved. Brian wins, and I decide that Anthony's belongs on this list because this industrial-looking building, part retail store, part restaurant, offers every clam shack favorite and then some: lobster, grilled fish, baked fish, fried fish. Lovers of fish and chips can choose between cod and flounder. There's both creamy New England and unthickened Rhode Island chowder, and a Portuguese-style seafood chowder made with shrimp, scallops, cod and chourico. Chourico also enlivens Anthony's stuffies, which can be ordered hot or mild.

Gleaming cases display fresh fish and prepared items such as scallops and bacon, clams casino and lobster cakes. Shelves are stocked with condiments, including Anthony's Shark Bite tartar sauce with mayonnaise, jalapeño, cilantro, horseradish, pickles, lime juice and black pepper. Anthony's may not be on the water, but like most things in Rhode Island, it isn't far from it.

Carol McCabe is a former reporter and editor for the Providence Journal.

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