Rhode Island

(Mary Beth Meehan for the Boston Globe)

Don't call it a hot dog

By any name, diners fiercely loyal to their own

Email|Print| Text size + By Joe Yonan
Globe Staff / August 6, 2006

PROVIDENCE -- To hear a native Rhode Islander tell it, the most colorful moniker for the state's stubby little hot wieners, laden with meat sauce, mustard, onions, and celery salt, is too colorful for a family newspaper. ``Off the record, then," he said. ``You wanna know what we call 'em?"

Of course. But I've done some research. I know that here in the littlest state, what are sometimes called New York System wieners are an only-in-Rhody obsession right up there with cabinets, coffee milk, Del's frozen lemonade, and jonnycakes. And I know that they go by many a name.

Gaggas, right? Sure. Destroyers? Uh-huh. Belly-busters? Close, he says, but not quite. So I give up: What, then, does John Rossi call them?

``Some people call 'em belly [expletive ]," said Rossi, smiling, ``because they're good going down, but four hours later they start to come back." In Rossi's experience, the only remedy for such a thing is a few big swigs of Coke about an hour or so after consumption.

Rossi should know. He's been consuming wieners for more than four decades. ``I was born in 1960, so I've eaten them since 1962," he said at the counter of Olneyville New York System in the Olneyville neighborhood of Providence . Moreover, to Rossi, two wieners don't even qualify as dinner, not even ``all the way ." On this Friday night, they're a mere appetizer for the cheesesteak he's now devouring. ``If I wasn't getting the steak, I'd get four wienies," he said.

This little wiener -- whatever you do, don't call it a hot dog -- has flourished in Rhode Island for almost a century, ever since Greek immigrants who ran similar operations on Coney Island moved north and attached the New York name to their new shops in apparent hopes of gaining credibility with the locals. The name and style stuck, and today from Warren to Warwick, Cranston to Newport, and Providence to Woonsocket, dozens of restaurants with names like Wein-O-Rama, Weiner Genie, Rod's Grille, and Sparky's New York System, Sam's New York System, Original New York Systems, Ferrucci Original New York System, and, yes, just plain New York System sell them for barely more than a buck apiece.

Ask a Rhode Islander who makes the best wiener, and the answer will probably be whatever place he or she had them growing up. Lisa Hamilton, associate editor of Rhode Island Magazine, prefers those from Rod's Grille, but that's because she hails from Warren.

The opinions are held dearly. People even disagree on how to spell wieners (see above). Hamilton says her magazine stopped including wieners in its ``Best of Rhode Island" awards for a few years because of the contentiousness (read: hate mail) that resulted.

Besides the traditional squared-off shape of most of the wieners (a result of cutting, not tying them off) and the meat-sauce topping, it's the method of assembly that truly distinguishes them. The old-school short-order cooks prepare them ``up d'ahm." They hold one arm out, palm up, and line up the buns between wrist and elbow, then quickly put a wiener in each, squirt on the mustard, dollop the meat sauce, spread the onions, and sprinkle the celery salt. At the best places, all that can happen in a matter of seconds.

``You have to get 'em out as fast as you can," said Nick Barros, one of the cooks at Olneyville, where the Showtime series ``Brotherhood" has filmed some scenes.

His fellow cook, Robert Zanni, talks up his co -worker's arm as if Barros were Curt Schilling. ``I have short arms," he said. ``But this gentleman, he can put on 15, then he stacks ' em -- he can do up to 45!"

Actually, that's not exactly right. ``I've done 50," Barros said.

On the other side of town, at Original New York Systems, when our group orders five wieners all the way, Norman Robb cradles a stainless-steel sheet for his assembly. Why not the arm? ``Because the Health Department says don't do it," he said with a grin. ``And because I don't know you."

This place, owned by the great-grandson of its founder, just celebrated its 79th anniversary. Robb has worked there for 19 of those years, and old habits die hard. ``I have people who come in and say they won't buy 'em unless I do 'em on my arm," he said. ``And then what am I supposed to do?"

Robb and fellow worker Raymond Colaluca are full of stories about founder Gust Pappas and celebrity visitors such as Louis Armstrong, who came for wieners at 2 a.m. one day in the early 1950s.

Musician David Byrne famously worked here in the 1970s, and some say the trademark chopping motion he performs in his oversized suit in the video for the Talking Heads' song ``Once in a Lifetime" came from his experience assembling the wieners. ``When he goes like this," Colaluca said, looking about as far from Byrne as can be imagined, ``he's putting on the mustard, putting on the meat sauce, putting on the onions."

Like Olneyville, Original New York Systems is open until long after Providence's clubs close, which explains the wieners' reputation as post-imbibing, pre-hangover food. As such, the grease content is high, particularly in the meat sauce, which consists of ground beef, fat, and seasonings no one will divulge. ``That I can't tell you," Colaluca said.

At the sunny Rod's Grille in Warren, the meat sauce is less greasy , but co-owner Sandra Rodrigues, whose grandfather Mariano started the place 50 years ago, won't divulge much about her grandmother's recipe. ``I've seen some of the other recipes in the paper, and hers is definitely different," Rodrigues said. ``What's different about it I'm not allowed to tell."

At Olneyville, Rossi remembers skipping church with money his mother gave him for the offering and instead spending it on 25-cent wieners. ``It was sinful," he admitted. For its part, Original New York Systems made news this year when a unit of Rhode Island soldiers serving in Iraq wrote to ask for a taste of home; the restaurant sent all the makings except the actual wieners. ``That's on account of the pork," which Muslim dietary laws prohibit, Colaluca said. ``We didn't want to start another war."

Contact Joe Yonan at

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