By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2009 Gourmet Magazine
Roast chicken is usually demure, but in Rhode Island it’s outlandish. All around Woonsocket, in the Blackstone Valley north of Providence, the extremely tiny state sports extremely gigantic restaurants that serve boundless bowls of chicken along with pasta and fried potatoes to challenge the most robust trencherman. Meals are dished out family-style, preceded by garlicky salad and baskets of bread, usually accompanied by bottles of wine and followed by ice cream and coffee. And yet the most notable thing about these mighty dinners is not their magnitude or their reasonable cost (about $12). What stops you in your tracks is how unspeakably good the chicken is.
The state’s habit of abundant weekend poultry feasts began at the Bocce Club Restaurant in the 1930s, when the Pavoni family began serving dinner to friends who came to their house to play bocce. Today, the oven-roasted birds arrive cut into halves; their flame-wrinkled skin, burnished gold with olive oil, is a mottled envelope of crunch and chew so heavily infused with drippings that its substance melts into pure flavor as soon as it hits your tongue. A confetti of aromatic herbs sticks to the surface of meat so tender that gentle prodding separates it into thick shreds as moist and succulent as pulled pork. Here is convincing evidence of the culinary maxim that perfectly roasted chicken, among the simplest of foods, can also be among the most satisfying.
While the ritual meal is fundamentally the same in all the region’s dinner halls, each place has its own twist on the formula. The Bocce Club’s signature, other than plastering the chicken with a profusion of rosemary, includes a salad decked out with salami, cheese, olives, and pepperoncini. You also will get a third starch added to the customary duo of marinara-sauced pasta and french fries: big hunks of oven-roasted potatoes. Although the majority of customers come for chicken, the extensive menu also includes Italian and Portuguese dishes, as well as steaks. But to come to the Bocce Club and not eat roast chicken would be like visiting Memphis and ignoring the barbecue.
Some local chicken-dinner aficionados favor Village Haven Restaurant, in Forestdale, for the soft, sweet cinnamon buns it serves as an inspired alternative to regular rolls. It is also unique for its rather cozy ambience. It is big—all the chicken places are—but dark wood beams, shelves lined with books, and the country-crafts décor give it the feel of the great room in a hunting lodge. On the other hand, Wright’s Farm Restaurant, in Harrisville, feels like the most popular attraction at a theme park on a summer Sunday. Outside, from the distant reaches of its parking lot, it looks like a large motel or conference center. Each evening, 75 ovens send out more than a ton of chicken to six cavernous dining rooms that can seat over 1,200 people. On a Friday or Saturday night, you’ll park a quarter mile away and you might wait an hour for your party’s name to be called on the speaker system. While biding time, you can shop for toys, fudge, and kitschy bric-a-brac in the 4,000-square-foot gift shop (with four different cash registers), try your luck at a window dedicated to selling lottery tickets, or play keno in one of the bars. There are tables set up for groups of 10 and 20 or more. Once seated, you will be waited on and served instantly. When you are done, you pay with cash. No credit cards are accepted (there are ATMs).
Everything about the experience is so huge it is hallucinatory; if you aren’t keen on being herded through supper with all the caring personal attention you might expect at a Department of Motor Vehicles, you’ll chafe. But if you want the best chicken dinner in Rhode Island—maybe the best non-fried chicken anywhere—put this gastronomic Gargantua at the top of your hit list. What makes it particularly good is that in addition to those fall-apart tender mouthfuls encased in gossamer skin, there are significant surface areas where the skin has pulled away during roasting and the bare exterior of the meat itself turns firm, becoming chewy, moisture-beaded bark with flavor even more intense than the soft, juice-dripping chicken within.
Wright’s Farm began as a modest-size chicken farm (which at one time supplied the Bocce Club). In the early 1950s, after hosting chicken-dinner picnics for local clubs, the original owner, Gene Wright, opened a restaurant. For all the years of expansion and increased efficiency, the farm’s 55-acre grounds remain rural enough to afford opportunities for a truly bucolic postprandial stroll. Wright’s is the biggest of the restaurants around Woonsocket, but in a way it is also the purest. Everybody eats the same meal. (There is one alternative for those allergic to chicken: steak, which is ordered by less than 1 percent of customers.) This singularity of focus is probably one reason for the goodness of the side dishes, which can be lackluster elsewhere. Wright’s iceberg lettuce salad is crisp and sparkly. The pasta shells are blanketed with vivid marinara sauce. The french fries have luxuriously creamy centers radiant with fresh potato taste. Everything is presented in large bowls for passing around, and the policy is that all customers eat until they have had enough. If ever a bowl is emptied, it gets replaced with a full one. Legend has it that one big man came to Wright’s some dozen years ago and consumed eight whole chickens before deciding dinner was over. We can relate. This chicken is so good we yearn for more long after our appetites have been sated.
Village Haven Restaurant