Clams & Corruption in Rhode Island

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I didn’t know what the Crime Town podcast was about when I downloaded it. I mean, I knew the gist. I’d read about it in some “best podcasts so far of 2017” list I read in Esquire, or Men’s Health, or CNN, one of the websites I cruise at work when I’m looking for something mindless to read. I just got into podcasts this past year. I’m really ahead of the trends. Embarrassingly enough it’s because I didn’t know where to find them. When I finally got the courage to ask a friend who already knows I’m behind the 8 ball, I was embarrassed to learn I just had to download a podcast app. It seems so easy, because it is. Anyhow, I’ve been on a tear with them lately, and was looking for something new this past September. I knew that Crime Town purported to pick one city every season and delve into its criminal past. I correctly hypothesized that it would be mostly mob-based, which is right up my alley. I did not inherit my father’s love for sports, poker, whiskey, or This Old House marathons on Saturday afternoons. I did inherit his passion for butter pecan ice cream (preferably eaten at home, sans pants), an inherent love for barking orders, and a keen interest in anything mob related. I’ve also inherited his love for all things nautical, New English, and his favorite beer, Narragansett, which is the reason I was traveling to Providence, Rhode Island with my family this past September. It was a pleasant coincidence that when I fired up Crime Town a week later, I found out that I’d be learning the sordid history of a town I just discovered I really liked.

I like to get people trips for Christmas. Last year I got my father a weekend based in Providence. The main purpose of the trip was to visit the newly opened Narragansett Brewery in nearby Pawtucket. As previously mentioned, t’s his favorite beer, and its booming popularity as of recent is what I assume is behind the opening of a brand new tasting room, which we’d be visiting. I booked us a hotel in downtown Providence with plans to drive up Saturday morning, hit the brewery, and then hopefully get a nice seafood dinner out on the town. I then planned to drive out to Newport Sunday morning, do a historic cruise on the harbor, and return back to Scranton that night. It took us so long to get up there, because what I’d initially planned on a father/son bonding experience grew to include the whole family, when my sister said she’d like to join in order to satisfy a love for stuffed quahogs we’d both picked up on a trip to the Cape a few summers ago, and then my mother didn’t want to be left out. Trying to coordinate five adults with busy schedules isn’t an easy feat, hence taking this trip a whole 6 months later.

Giant stuffed quahogs.

A stuffed quahog (or “stuffie” as they’re colloquially known) is essentially just clams casino on steroids. I’m generalizing I’m sure, and missing some nuances, but it’s a large clam, cooked, chopped, mixed with stuffing, and then baked in its shell. It’s a regional New English delicacy, and when I’m saying large, I actually mean giant. One “stuffie” is almost all you ever need for an appetizer, and two or three can easily make an entire meal.  Since we were planning on spending our afternoon drinking Naragansett at the brewery, we figured a heavy lunch wasn’t a bad move.  My brother had done some prior research and all internet signs pointed to The Red Bridge Tavern in East Providence as having the best stuffies in the city.  When we pulled up to what looked like a nondescript pub smack in the middle of a residential neighborhood, I felt good about this choice.  When I saw the barebones, almost bleak entrance way complete with a Keno machine, I assumed we’d be going into one of those dive bars with really great food, but that was misleading. The Red Bridge Tavern’s bar and dining room was bright and cheery, and the type of place you could take your parents and not feel bad about it. And they had giant, delicious, very spicy stuffed quahogs. I also had an excellent breaded haddock topped with spicy shrimp, and my dad and brother both had what they said were some of the best fried clam rolls they’ve ever had. This was sort of a harbinger of things to come, because I ate really well in Providence. I’m 100% coming back here on a return trip, and actually the quahogs and atmosphere were both appealing enough that I think they’d even warrant a short field trip off the highway next time I’m driving somewhere or other in New England up 95.

Very nondescript, but nominally red, so that’s good.

The quahogs at the Red Bridge started off the trip on a very high note. The Naragansett Brewery, and this breaks my heart to report, was something of a let-down. To be fair, I think maybe I didn’t research as fully as I could, so that’s on me. I definitely was unaware that they’d be hosting their Octoberfest celebrations that day, and despite that making itmore crowded and louder than normal, I’d file that under good surprises; I learned I really enjoy day drinking to the sounds of blaring German techno that Saturday.  The Pawtucket facility isn’t as much a brewery, as it is a tasting room, and it’s not even a Naragansett focused tasting room.  It’s the Isle Brewer’s Guild, where a bunch of regional beers are showcased. The tasting room was very nice, it’s just not necessarily what I was hoping for, or expecting.  Naragansett is an old beer with a lot of history. I guess maybe I was expecting something more reminiscent of my visit to Yuengling, with stories about the company, vintage ads, and all the different Naragansett beers to sample.  They didn’t even have Naragansett tallboys on sale for consumption. I mean, at this point you could basically get them at any bar in Philly or Scranton, but I was sad I was unable to get one from the source. Still, we had a really good time, and it was nice having the five of us together on an unseasonably warm day to sit in the sun, have a few beverages, and play some giant jenga.

Oktoberfest things.
I’m looking pissy because the picture my mother took before this one is literally the worst picture I’ve taken in years. Of course, I did’t realize she tagged me in it on Facebook for hours.

Our hotel was located in Providence’s North End, which I learned while listening to Crime Town was headquarters for Raymond Patriarca, head of the New English mob.  I’m still listening to the show, and I’m hooked. It’s rather lengthy, 18 episodes altogether, and full of very specific details. I have to listen to it when my mind is free of other thoughts, and preferably on longer drives, where I can sit and listen to an episode front to back uninterrupted, and really absorb the details.  I knew I loved it when one of the first crooks profiled ended up being a notorious mob hitman who now, in the twilight of his years, is a dedicated Dungeons and Dragons player and active LARPER. You cannot make that shit up.  It’s a fascinating listen, especially when you compare it to the Providence I visited, which seemed especially modern and clean, and tops an awful lot of “best small cities to visit” lists. There’s a lot to do in Providence, and our short trip did criminal little to show off the city. I would’ve liked to have done a river tour, saw the WaterFire, or tried to find the best “doughboys” they’ve got to offer.

The Providence of yore sounded more than a little dicey.

We had dinner at Hemenway’s, which we picked because it was on the river, and is much fancier than I think anyone in my family is used to. Seriously, when the waiter came over to offer us hot towels for our hands, I almost put it on my forehead (remember, we were also at the brewery all afternoon).  I didn’t know what to do with them. It was embarrassing. It was worth the money though (says the guy who let his dad pick up the check). I had some delicious oysters, even more delicious paella, and my mom and I split a bourbon pecan torte with chocolate whiskey ice cream that is going to rank up there as one of the best things I ate in 2017.  After dinner we returned to our hotel. My mom, sister, and I stayed at the bar for one more drink. My mom then left.  Katelyn and I stayed for “just one more,” approximately four times. This is the story of our lives.

Newport Harbor.

I really liked Providence, if you could tell. I think I might’ve like Newport more. It’s the quintessential, over-priced, over-hyped, bougie-as-hell New England town of my dreams. I would balk at the prices of the lodging, food, and drink if I had to stay there all weekend, but I’d secretly love it. We took a harbor cruise on the Gansett, a refurbished trawler that is now a two story tour boat. The price of a ticket got you a guided tour of the Newport Harbor, and a complimentary beverage, although they did (I believe) have a cash bar and food on board. Harbor cruises are popular in Newport, and for good reason. The harbor is huge, and there’s a ton of history, both revolutionary and modern, tales of pirates, ghosts, and a lot of real money to burn. A big part of Newport’s appeal are the guided age mansions that line its shores. Most of them now are hotels, condos, restaurants, or bed and breakfasts, but they’re still impressive. A few of them are private residences, which are more impressive. The most impressive are the mega-yachts docked in the harbor. They flock to Newport because of its still world reknowned shipyard, and these things can only be described as multi-million dollar monstrosities, but like, the good kind of monstrosity that you want to look at and envy.

MEGA yacht
The entrance to Flo’s.

We walked around the harbor a little bit after our cruise, but after my brother and I wandered into one art gallery where we realized paintings retailed starting at $24,000.00 I was pretty much scared to even window shop.  The highlight of that store was a small child knocking one of these 20-thousand-something paintings off thewall. We did not stay to see how that ended.  Instead, we had lunch at Flo’s Clam Shack. Here’s everything you need to know about Flo’s:

  • It started life in a chicken coop back in 1936.
  • Flo’s has subsequently been destroyed by hurricanes 5 times, and like a cockroach, doesn’t die.
  • You have to walk through a hidden tunnel in a small grove of bamboo plants to get there.
  • Flo’s #9 is a bottle of Moet and two gourmet hotdogs for $80.00.

I really don’t have to say more, do I?

Flo’s fried clam roll.

After lunch, we bid my sister, who had to work in Philly the next day, a farewell, and Shawn, my parents, and I set off to Newport’s famed cliffwalk, a path along the sea cliffs with views of the ocean and Newport’s mansions. I feel like I need to disclaim here that you cannot see a lot of the mansions, as those that are private residences, or condos, or hotels, have fences and shrubbery hiding them from the peons like myself. I actually ended up feeling less annoyed that I couldn’t see them, and more bad for the people in them that they can’t really enjoy their ocean views. Still, I’m never going complain about walking along the ocean, and we did have fun watching surfers for a while.

We ended our trip with a Del’s Frozen Lemonade from a truck on the beach where we parked, and I settled in for the long ride home, where unbeknownst to me, I’d be downloading a podcast telling me how Providence, a town I thought was so clean, and shiny, and new, was essentially a hot bed of trash for years (literally, the episode I’m currently on is how the mob-packed trash union bucked against a mayor by letting trash build up around town in the summer).

 

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