“Who doesn’t like calamari?”
It wasn’t so much a question as it was an exclamation made by Rep. Joseph McNamara (D-Dist. 19, Warwick) during a recent phone interview, as he seeks to make calamari Rhode Island’s official appetizer.
He thinks the crispy fried squid that’s served as a pre-dinner treat has the potential to serve up more tourism in the Ocean State, and Rhode Island should be highlighting its attributes when tied with Nevada for the nation’s worst unemployment rate.
“We, as a state, have to start promoting our assets,” McNamara said, noting that the Rhode Island Hospitality and Tourism Association is supporting the bill, which he introduced last week.
“If we do that and market them correctly, to use a nautical analogy, all ships rise with the time. It helps everyone. We can be negative and down and keep repeating the things in our economy that aren’t working, but we have to continue to promote our successes, and promote them beyond our borders.”
About two months ago, McNamara visited an upscale seafood restaurant in Portsmouth, N.H., and noticed that the first thing on the menu was Rhode Island-style calamari. Distinguishing characteristics include hot peppers, which are sometimes pickled or sautéed. Marinara sauce is often served on the side.
“I’ve noticed it on the Cape, and in Connecticut, too,” he said.
McNamara also discovered that chefs across the nation are serving Rhode Island-style calamari, including acclaimed chef Guy Fieri of the Food Network. After doing more research, he learned that Rhode Island’s squid fleet produced more than 7 million pounds last year, which is 54 percent of the squid landed in the Northeast. That fact, he said, combined with Rhode Island’s already national reputation for fine seafood and Italian cuisine, should attract people from throughout the nation to the state.
“There’s a great interest in locally-sourced food,” McNamara said. “People are fascinated by it, and they travel for it. I have traveled to different places and restaurants to try various dishes. I go to named restaurants and try products I’ve seen and read about. I guarantee people from out-of-state would agree the state’s calamari is outstanding.”
He said they should visit to experience the plethora of Rhode Island restaurants that serve it, as not every establishment makes it exactly the same. Some, including local places like L’attitudes, O’Rourke’s and Governor Francis Inn, have subtle varieties.
Melanie Flamand, co-owner of Carousel Grille at 859 Oakland Beach Avenue, favors the legislation. While she admits there are more pressing things on the agenda, she agrees that if approved, it would be good for tourism.
“There are people out there that don’t realize what a wide variety of calamari is being made,” she said. “We have two ways – classic with pepper rings and oil, and calamari balsamico, which is served with olives, red peppers and a balsamic glaze.”
Flamand said no matter the order, their seafood is delivered fresh daily. Calamari is cut thin, deep fried, and then sautéed in a pan with peppers.
“Some people serve it whole, but we like it where it’s just the rings,” she said.
That’s good news for Cranston resident Stacy Sotirakos, who likes her calamari crispy with hot peppers. She’s not the biggest fan of seafood, yet loves calamari. But don’t serve her any with tentacles.
“Those look scary,” she said.
Sotirakos, whose father co-owns Wein-O-Rama, a diner located at 1009 Oaklawn Avenue in Cranston that specializes in hot wieners, another signature Rhode Island food, enjoys calamari from a restaurant in her hometown.
“Spain has the best calamari,” said Sotirakos. “It just has a kick, and it’s delicious.”
Tommy Patrick, owner of Dockside Seafood Marketplace at 2275 Warwick Avenue, said he sells raw calamari all sorts of ways, from the tubes only or tubes and tentacles, to cut rings that you can bread or sauté at home or prepared calamari that’s ready to cook.
Every Friday, he and his staff sell cooked calamari with hot peppers and marinara sauce for take-out, in addition to fish and chips. Last Friday, they ran out of calamari, and Patrick wonders if the recent media attention on the bill is the reason for the influx.
“We usually go through about 100 or so orders on Friday nights, and we actually ran out,” he said. “I was surprised. We usually have a few extra.”
And while there’s a debate that stuffed quahogs should be named Rhode Island’s official appetizer, Sotirakos and Flamand don’t think any other food item rivals calamari for the slot.
Clearly, McNamara feels the same, even though some of his colleagues say the stuffie should reign supreme as the official appetizer. His response is that the quahog is already the state shell.
No hard feelings to the quahog, he said, as he digs his own and makes stuffies with chorizo. He won’t tell you his special spot in the Bay, however.
“My quahogging spot is secret, and I’d have to blindfold you to take you there,” McNamara said.