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Aunt Carrie’s makes diners as happy as clams

By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / June 17, 2012
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Fourth in a series on James Beard Foundation America’s Classics Eateries in New England.

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — Who would think such a small state could make clam chowder so complicated? There must be a recipe for every Rhode Islander, but they fall into three main categories: red, white, and clear.

Naturally, Aunt Carrie’s, which entered the pantheon of the James Beard Foundation’s America’s Classics in 2007, carries all three. Which one you order “all depends on your mood,” says our waitress Alison Watson. It might also depend on your geographic allegiance. “Most people go for the white, but New Yorkers order the red,” she says. Locals forgo both milk and tomato and opt for the clear.

For the record, the clear chowder has the most pronounced clam flavor, and it is best for dunking clam cakes, the dish on which Carrie Cooper made her name. Like many Rhode Island food specialties, the clam cakes are not quite what their name suggests. Cooper started making them by tossing chopped clams into her recipe for corn fritters, and at least in this corner of Narragansett, a clam cake is a whomping big fritter, not a puny breaded patty.

Aunt Carrie’s has been serving the big doughballs since the original Carrie and her husband, Ulysses, opened the restaurant in 1920. “We don’t really change too much,” says Elsie Foy, whose late husband, Bill, was the grandson of the founders. The classic menu includes the chowders and clam cakes, as well as clam rolls, fried clam dinners, steamed clams, and stuffed clams. But make no mistake: This is no funky, take-out-only clam shack. It’s been a shore restaurant with a dining room from the outset.

The cedar-shingled exterior — which looks virtually unchanged since the 1930s photos on the walls — gives way inside to a main dining room of varnished wooden tables, bentwood-style chairs, and buttercup yellow walls with kelly green trim. Windows dressed with lace valances look out on swaying marsh grasses. The dining room has a wonderfully homey feel. Indeed, eating at Aunt Carrie’s is a bit like a visit to your favorite great aunt (assuming she’s a genius with a grill and a fryolater and has access to fresh-off-the-boat seafood). Everyone young and old is on his or her best behavior as tray after tray laden with generous plates of food emerges from the kitchen.

In fact, if there’s any problem with Aunt Carrie’s, it’s that portions can be too generous. The standard order of clamcakes, for example, is six. Given that each is nearly the size of a tennis ball, that should be enough to feed a family. You can also order an inexpensive combo plate of three clamcakes with a bowl of clam chowder.

Even one of the rare newcomers to the menu practically overflows the plate. The lobster BLT was added in 2011, says Foy, at the suggestion of her son-in-law. “He’s from northern Vermont, and he puts bacon on everything,” she says. To his credit, the sandwich has proven to be very popular. Served on toasted bread made in house every morning, the sandwich piles on crisp bacon, crunchy lettuce, big slices of tomato, and a mound of sweet lobster meat. It’s so big it’s hard to wrap your mouth around it. “You have to smoosh it down a little,” Foy advises.

Be careful with those big portions, as you will certainly want to save room for a slice of pie. They are made fresh on the premises, many of them from Aunt Carrie’s own recipes.

1240 Ocean Road, 401-783-7930, www.aunt

carriesri.com. Open daily Memorial Day-

Labor Day, weekends in September, Fri-Sun April-May. Clamcakes, sandwiches, and

plates $3.99-$22.99; some items market

price. BYOB.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon, who write

the hungrytravelers.com food and travel blog, can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.

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