Food

Calamari As the Official State Appetizer: An Endorsement

Calamari is RI's favorite appetizer, but should that be enshrined in law?

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John Elkhay is the founder and maestro of the Chow Fun Food Group.

Remember when we endured that heart breaking loss at the State House last year? The one that left a bill to make Rhode Island-style calamari our State Appetizer, and thus pulling us out of the depths of despair, dead on the marble floor? Well it's back, and hopefully we won't be forced to mourn its death once again.

I, for one, endorse this movement. This often scary, sometimes misunderstood seafood has been growing in popularity since the 8th Century B.C., but has had a surge in popularity over the last decade. Rhode Island’s fishing industry provides squid to much of the country and beyond; I have been selling a ton of calamari since my time at IN-Prov in 1986, and we now sell upwards of 300 pounds of it per week among our six Chow Fun Food Group restaurants.

I first learned of fried calamari that was served with marinara sauce in 1986 when dining on Federal Hill, but wanted to try something more avant-garde at our restaurant, IN-Prov. And so we – well mostly Myrna Adolfo, our pastry chef – created the now famous chipotle mayonnaise that was developed for this dish, making it an instant hit.

For me, it was that condiment that opened my eyes to the myriad ways to prepare this sometimes misunderstood cephalopod. A potato is a perfect foil for butter, bacon, sour cream, salt, pepper, and chives. Calamari is the perfect carrier for many toppings like garlic, olive oil, olives and marinara sauce, to name a few. Its broad appeal and diversity make it appear in many forms, and many cultures have established their own methods of preparing and customizing squid.

Depending on a person’s culture, calamari is either grilled, roasted, sautéed, braised, stir fried, skewered on kabobs, served raw as in sushi (no thank you!) or cut into thin “noodles” (check please!). While Rhode Island-style calamari is simply served deep fried with banana peppers and then tossed in garlic butter, Mediterranean families might serve it with a Sardinian sauce made from lemon, garlic, parsley and olive oil or coated in batter and fried, or in the case of Italians, Greeks or Portuguese, with tomatoes, garlic, olives, capers and the ubiquitous parsley. I can just smell the garlic and tomatoes simmering as I write this! I’m sure if a Roman slave, preparing for combat in the Coliseum, had served up calamari with a garlic mayonnaise, his life would have been spared.

When threatened, the squid releases a black ink to confuse predators and camouflage its escape. This ink can be also be harvested and incorporated into dishes like risotto, paella or even sheets of pasta. It has a concentrated flavor of salt and seafood. Ever drink anchovy oil out of a can with a straw? Yeah, kinda tastes like that. Euell Gibbons, the great naturalist, or even Jules Verne, must have found ways to use the black ink of the squid, but this is only conjecture.

Calamari has come a long way; our Rhode Island-style squid was once simply dusted in flour and herbs but now enjoys a romp in finely ground polenta (local, of course), rice flour, or even water chestnut flour. This calamari is not just “in” at trendy new restaurants; any restaurant worth its salt should have it on the menu. Well, I must admit, four out of six of our restaurants have it. I never thought it would go with barbeque sauce, but have you had it tossed with Buffalo sauce like we do at Luxe Burger Bar? Brilliant!

So, whether made into sushi, deep fried, sliced into steaks, added to paella or lobster Fra Diavolo, or tossed in Buffalo sauce with a side of ranch dressing, this versatile seafood has become an essential ingredient to amp up salads, main dishes or appetizers. With all its uses, and the fact that it encompasses two of Rhode Island’s key industries, fishing and hospitality, our fair squid certainly deserves official recognition.