Can you call a visit to Philadelphia complete without trying a cheese steak or a soft pretzel? Can you go to Maryland and not eat crab cakes? What about New Orleans? If you go to New Orleans without having beignets at Cafe du Monde and some cajun cooking, you are missing a vital piece of the experience. Trying local or regional foods is a big part of traveling. You can’t go to Paris and eat at a McDonalds (ok, I actually did that but I was desperate and I’ve since learned better.)

Since trying local foods is such an essential part of a travel experience, I’m starting a new feature on the blog with “Must Try Foods” from the cities or regions where we travel. But I figured I would start off close to home and showcase some of the must try foods in Rhode Island that make our state distinct. This is certainly not a complete list of RI specialties or the great restaurants RI has to offer, but some foods that are only in RI, from RI, or just quintessential RI. For more ideas about visiting RI, check out my suggestions for planning a family weekend getaway to Providence.

10 Must Try Foods in Rhode Island

  • Calamari – growing up in NJ, I thought calamari was disgusting. It was big, thickly-breaded rings and legs deep fried and served with marinara sauce. Then I moved to Rhode Island and was forced to rethink my stance on calamari. In RI, the calamari is very lightly battered, fried or sauteed and served with a mix of garlic butter and hot cherry peppers; and it is delicious. In fact, it was recently proposed to make RI-style calamari the state appetizer. I rarely have a bad plate of calamari so you really can’t go wrong at any of the fine restaurants around Rhode Island; but if you want a stand out serving, try ordering it at Pane e Vino in Providence.
Calamari from Pane e Vino | 10 Must Try RI Foods

Photo credit: Pane e Vino Restaurant

  • Del’s Lemonade – when I first moved to RI I ordered a lemonade at a restaurant and they asked if I wanted a Del’s and I said sure, having no idea what I was getting. Based on Italian lemon ices, Del’s offers frozen lemonade (like a lemon slushy) and is ubiquitous in Rhode Island during the summer from permanent stands to roadside carts at popular attractions. Del’s is now available in a variety of flavors including mango/peach and watermelon.
10 Must Try Foods when Visiting RI #2 Del's Lemonade

Photo credit: FabulousFabs on Flickr Creative Commons, click photo for link

  • Lobster ravioli – I have friends that have moved from RI to CT but whenever they come back to visit they bring home a cooler stocked with lobster ravioli. While many restaurants serve it, most of them source it from the masters – Venda Ravioli. Located in Depasquale Square in Providence’s Federal Hill district, Venda Ravioli is a gourmet Italian market, complete with a sidewalk cafe. If you can’t get a table there, try their sister restaurant Constantino’s just across the square.
  • Clamcakes – Clamcakes are one of those foods that people swear by one vendor’s versus another; but if you want to try two great examples, head down to Narragansett to try Iggy’s and Aunt Carrie’s. A clamcake is a egg-sized fritter mixture with breading and small pieces of clams inside. Personally, I think I go with Iggy’s but try them for yourselves.

  • Doughboys – While you are down at Iggy’s, you should also pick up some doughboys. Every region seems to have its own version of fried dough (funnel cakes, NJ-style zeppolis…), and doughboys are Rhode Island’s. Doughboys are flat, plate sized pieces of fried dough. Served hot out of the fryer, you can get them plain, with powdered sugar or regular sugar. 
  • Pizza strips (aka Party Pizza) – These are one of those odd Rhode Island specialties that seem to show up at every party, although I never hear anyone saying how much they love them. Basically they are strips of focaccia-like dough topped with a thick tomato sauce. Pizza strips are served at room temperature (I know, weird, right?) and are available at most local bakeries and markets.
RI Pizza Strips | 10 Must Try RI Foods

Pizza strips from Dave’s Market

  • Zeppole – When I was talking about doughboys, I mentioned NJ-style zeppolis, which are small balls of fried dough (strangely enough, about the size of a clamcake), sold by the dozen or half-dozen, and topped with powdered sugar or cinnamon sugar. It was a favorite treat of mine when visiting the boardwalk at the Jersey shore. So when I moved to RI, I heard about this holiday called St. Joseph’s Day, which was celebrated by eating zeppole. I was excited until I went to the bakery and found that the zeppole sold in RI are actually a creampuff-like pastry filled with a custard-type cream or other option, and topped with cream and usually a cherry. Yummy, just not what I was expecting. Unfortunately, zeppole are mostly found around St. Joseph’s Day in March so if you are visiting at another time, you might miss out, but if you are lucky enough to be in town at the right time, I’d recommend stopping by LaSalle Bakery in Providence (also pick up a red velvet cupcake while you are there), or the Providence Journal put together a great list of where to find zeppole.
10 Must Try RI Foods - Zeppole from LaSalle Bakery

Photo Credit: LaSalle Bakery

  • Cabinets and Coffee Milk – Yeah, in RI, apparently a cabinet is not just a place to store things, it is coffee milkshake beverage made of coffee ice cream, coffee syrup and milk. You don’t see them too often anymore but if you really want one, you can get it at one of Newport Creamery’s many locations. Coffee milk is something you still see around, or at least can buy coffee syrup in the market, it is a drink made by adding a sweetened coffee concentrate called coffee syrup to milk, the same way you make chocolate milk. (Update: I have been corrected that Newport Creamery’s famous Awful Awful is not a cabinet, but it is a RI speciality.)
10 Must Try Foods when Visiting Rhode Island - Autocrat Coffee milk

Photo Credit: Spablab on Flickr Creative Commons, click photo for link

  •  Stuffies (aka Stuffed Quahogs) – Stuffies are baked clams stuffed with a breading that includes chopped quahogs (the RI state crustacean mollusc), herbs, and possibly bits of peppers and chorizo sausage. Stuffies are another thing that you can get just about anywhere and my favorites are actually from my local Dave’s Market; but if you would rather eat them out, try Finn’s Harbourside in East Greenwich.
Stuffies (aka Stuffed Quahogs) | 10 Must Try RI Foods

Stuffie from Dave’s Market

  • New York System Hot Weiners – I had to put this one last because after 11 years in RI, I still don’t understand why locals tout a food that was named after another state. I also lived in NY and I don’t get the connection (I guess it goes back to Coney Island style hot dogs.) But, that said, it is a classic RI food so if you want to try it, head over to one of Olneyville N.Y. System’s locations. The traditional wiener is made with a small, thin frankfurter made of veal and pork, giving it a different taste from a traditional beef hot dog, served in a steamed bun, and topped with celery salt, yellow mustard, chopped onions, and a seasoned meat sauce.
10 Must Try Foods when Visiting Rhode Island #10 Hot "NY System" style weiners

Hot weiners from New York System

I will give you one more bonus must try food. I have two words for you…Donut Cake. Yup, that is a must try food that I’ve only seen in RI and you can only get them at Allie’s Donuts in North Kingstown, but you better order in advance.

10 Must Try Foods when Visiting Rhode Island

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There are more I left off the list, like johnnycakes (a cornmeal pancake), RI-style clam chowder (unlike New England clam chowder, RI has a clear broth), and dynamites (hamburgers with peppers, onions and tomato sauce – sort of like a sloppy joe) because you don’t actually see them on menus very often despite their RI claim to fame. For more suggestions on RI foods and where to find them, check out the Quahog.

Please leave me a comment and let me know what the “Must Try” foods are in your area so that when we are traveling I can add them to my list of things to do. And, if you are a food or travel blogger interested in submitting a guest post with the must try foods from your hometown (including where to get them), be sure to drop me a line, I’d love to feature your work.

(Featured photo credit: Taber Andrew Bain using a Flickr Creative Commons License. Allie’s Donuts photo credit: Marc Choquette using a Flickr Creative Common License.]