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Calamari, Rhode Island’s controversial state appetizer, becomes an unexpected star of Democratic convention

The roll call vote gave each delegation an opportunity to showcase itself during the second night of the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 18. (Video: The Washington Post)

There was an Ohio union worker alarmed over the economy, a New York nurse decrying the coronavirus pandemic, and a Tennessee college student honoring the state’s history-making vote for the 19th Amendment.

But during a roll-call montage on Night 2 of the Democratic National Convention, no vote on Tuesday night commanded the Internet’s attention quite like Rhode Island’s — or its official state appetizer, calamari.

Because this year’s convention has gone mostly virtual, each state or territory sent in a 30-second video announcing their delegation’s votes for a presidential nominee, with many clips spotlighting a local landmark.

Rhode Island’s entry was filmed on Warwick’s sandy Oakland Beach, where state party chairman Joseph M. McNamara submitted 34 of the state’s 35 delegate votes to presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. And McNamara, who once led a contentious, years-long campaign to give fried squid official recognition in the statehouse, made an enticing appeal to viewers at home.

“Our state appetizer, calamari, is available in all 50 states,” McNamara said, as a masked chef in a black apron silently held up a platter with crispy rings of the breaded seafood in its traditional local preparation: slathered in garlic, parsley and sliced cherry peppers.

If that sales pitch was not the outright victor of Tuesday’s roll-call video montage, it was certainly the most irreverent. Or, at least, the most characteristically Rhode Island way to make an appearance on a prime-time national stage.

“Rhode Island’s use of its DNC state roll call primarily as an opportunity to hawk calamari,” one person wrote on Twitter, “is the most on-brand of all the states and territories.”

For those outside the coasts of New England, though, the state appetizer was appealing enough to lobby for bumping former president Barack Obama from Night 3 of the convention.

“The calamari just got the keynote slot for tomorrow night,” New York Times culture reporter Dave Itzkoff wrote on Twitter.

“OMG,” wrote Alex Wagner, co-host of Showtime’s “The Circus,” aiming even higher: “Rhode Island calamari just won the whole election.”

No shortage of attention was also directed at the video’s masked “calamari man”: John Bordieri, executive chef at Iggy’s, a group of three seafood restaurants scattered around the Ocean State.

Charlotte Alter, a national correspondent for Time magazine, compared him to Roger Williams, the exiled Puritan minister who founded Rhode Island in search of religious freedom.

But Bordieri did not appear in the roll call for a lofty cause, or for the politics, he told The Washington Post. In fact, he’s not sure if he’ll vote for Biden at all.

“Everything to me is always the same,” he said. “They say they’re going to change health plans, the economy, the workforce. … The only thing that really changes is the price of things going up, and all these rich people making more money.”

A native of Cranston who has spent his entire career working in restaurants, Bordieri admitted he doesn’t know much about the Democratic nominee and former vice president. Although he votes, “I don’t really have any say on who, what, when or where.”

But what he is convinced of is that Rhode Island calamari is too good not to share with the rest of the country. Iggy’s, which started out as a small oceanfront shack, usually serves between 300 and 500 pounds of calamari a week, adding banana peppers and swapping in fresh garlic and olive oil for garlic butter.

“We have a very good product. It’s always fresh, and it’s pretty much the best sauce we serve,” he said. “It’s a great flavor. ... Where else would you go but the beach in Rhode Island for a restaurant serving calamari?”

McNamara’s campaign to make the dish Rhode Island’s state appetizer was one of the more contentious issues taken up by the state legislature in recent years. Though undoubtedly popular, calamari doesn’t occupy the same hallowed place in Rhode Island culture as the quahog, which most commonly appears on menus in the form of clam cakes, stuffies and chowder.

But while the quahog industry has been in decline for decades, the unassuming squid has proved surprisingly lucrative, outstripping oysters and lobsters to become the state’s most valuable commercial fishery. Starting in 2013, McNamara launched an aggressive campaign that boosters hoped would make “Rhode Island calamari” the new “Maine lobster” or “Idaho potatoes.”

At the time, Rhode Island alternated between having the highest or second-highest unemployment rate in the nation, and McNamara told the Associated Press that he was “tired of hearing the naysayers and Doctor Dooms that are really putting down our state.” Enshrining calamari as the state’s appetizer would be an opportunity to “celebrate our successes,” he said.

The idea faced a hostile reception from many Rhode Islanders, who objected to the legislature elevating calamari over clam-based dishes. Others suggested that elected officials should focus on the problems plaguing the state instead of debating the relative merits of seafood appetizers.

When the legislation failed to pass that year, McNamara angrily told the Journal that his fellow lawmakers had “used symbols out of ‘Godfather I’ and left the dead squid on the desk to send a message.” But in 2014, he prevailed, and baskets of calamari were handed out as the bill was ceremonially signed into law at the fishing port of Galilee.

Six years later, he told the Providence Journal, the state’s marketing efforts have turned Rhode Island calamari into an “upscale appetizer” and an annual $60 million industry. After the pandemic shut down restaurants and left fishermen with no place to sell their catch, McNamara saw the roll call vote as the perfect opportunity to highlight the state’s innovative response: letting them offer fish straight to consumers.

When McNamara reached out to Iggy’s, longtime owner David Gravino felt the prime-time publicity would be too big to deny. He arranged a video shoot with Bordieri, who thought the 30-second video would maybe appear as a commercial — until he was flooded with texts and calls on Tuesday evening.

Gravino, too, declined to state who would get his vote in November. He would have gladly made the same arrangement with the Rhode Island GOP, he said, and his focus remains on serving up “bipartisan calamari” — as well as clam chowder and doughboys — out of the 32-year-old enterprise.

But he is willing to make a public show of support in this year’s presidential election for either candidate who seeks him out. There’s just one condition.

“They have to get to Rhode Island first and get to the calamari, and have it on the beach with me and John,” he said. “Then, we can talk about endorsements.”

Antonia Farzan reported from Newport, R.I.