LOS ANGELES — We were at cruising altitude somewhere between Warwick and Los Angeles when the subject of the stuffie came up.
The Rhode Island food staple is set to also become a staple of the state’s tourism efforts, with 7-foot-tall installations planned at airports elsewhere in the United States to lure people to the Ocean State. That includes LAX, where Breeze Airways last week launched its inaugural flight from Rhode Island on a summer seasonal route. But would anyone outside Rhode Island know what a stuffie is? Midflight, I showed a fellow passenger, Breeze’s Dallas-based VP of marketing Angela Vargo, a picture of the mockup installation.
I asked Vargo what it made her think.
“I think I’m hungry,” she said.
Indeed. But luckily for foodies, you won’t have to gnaw on the 7-foot imitation at the airport to get your stuffie fix in Los Angeles. Because there’s a restaurant in LA that serves them. And I’m here to tell you: They are pretty darn good.
As part of my recent voyage from Rhode Island to California on the first-ever nonstop flight to the West Coast, I checked out three restaurants in the City of Angels that have some Rhode Island ties.
I started my trip with the venerable stuffed clam.
Connie and Ted’s, West Hollywood
Go to Connie and Ted’s and you’ll find a beverage coaster that says “Est’d 1940.” That is not true as to the restaurant. It is true as to its namesake couple. Connie and Ted Poynton were English immigrants who met at a volunteer fire department dance and married in 1940, settling in Pawtucket. In 1947, Ted built a summer cottage in Matunuck. They enjoyed fishing, a love that they passed on to one of their grandsons, a man named . . . Michael Cimarusti.
If you’re a foodie in the know, you’re probably spitting out your stuffie right now. People speak about Cimarusti’s other restaurant (more on this in a second) with the sort of reverence reserved for ancient religious sites. Connie and Ted’s is its more casual but still highly regarded younger sibling, with much of the same ownership and management as that other place.
The bread for the stuffies is baked in-house, as are the crackers for the chowder (New England, Manhattan, Rhode Island, or all three for the adventurous). Everything here is homemade except the ketchup, the server told me. You’ll also find some more West Coast fare, like asparagus in a creamy sauce. The calamari was from Point Judith — I got grilled, not fried, on executive chef Sam Baxter’s (correct) recommendation. To top it all off, a huge bowl of steamers. Soul food, Baxter calls it.
“That strong connection people have to their home — food is the central hub of that,” said Baxter, an Angeleno.
And can a New England-style seafood restaurant survive in Los Angeles? Yes. In June, it celebrates its 10-year anniversary.
A taste of Providence
OK, everything you’re thinking about the more casual Connie and Ted’s? The “naked cowboy” oysters and the “wicked good chowda”? Imagine something that’s so much the opposite that it comes full circle and becomes, at its core, the same thing — the same dedication to craft and sustainable seafood, but in a staggeringly elegant environment, with a $295 chef’s tasting menu. You now have two-Michelin-starred seafood restaurant Providence.
It recent underwent an interior design transformation, conceptualized by Cimarusti and co-owners Donato Poto and Crisi Echiverri. After a hectic and stressful five-week closure, it is now a fully realized vision of Providence — tidal blue-green hues, hand-blown glass fixtures, modern wood tables without tablecloths. They thought of everything, including how celebrities would need privacy (I’m told Prince was a regular at the chef’s table) and how the lighting would have to make everyone feel beautiful. Jason St. John of creative design agency Bells + Whistles emphasized that the atmosphere at Providence is not stuffy.
True, and it’s not stuffie, either. The two-hour tour was catered with little pieces of edible art. You’d look at these things after a long night of demolishing chowder and housing steamers at sibling restaurant Connie and Ted’s and think, “This Japanese A5 wagyu beef tartare dressed with a vinaigrette of smoked wagyu fat and anchovy can’t possibly be as satisfying.” And yet it was!
Rhode Island remains a touchstone for Cimarusti, including at the aptly named Providence, which he’d originally thought about naming “Galilee.” He recalls going to Scarborough Beach as a kid with grandfather Ted, who would give him $5 for a soda and clam cakes.
“I love the relationship people have to the ocean in Rhode Island,” said Cimarusti, who is from New Jersey. “I don’t think there’s any other place I’ve been that has the same sort of relationship with the ocean.”
While I was there, Rhode Island kept Rhode Islanding in small but weird ways. The ways in which everyone knows everyone and there’s nowhere to hide. Cimarusti’s publicist, Meghan Patke, at one point asked me what airline I’d flown in on. I told her Breeze, and she said, oh, I have a friend who works there. Angela Vargo, the VP of marketing.
The people who run Providence and Connie and Ted’s also happen to be friends with Suzanne Goin, the chef at my next stop.
Los Angeles has a lot of things, but proportionally, it doesn’t have a ton of Portuguese people. It does have Caldo Verde, a restaurant that Goin, a Brown University graduate, opened with fellow James Beard award-winner Caroline Styne in October 2021. The restaurant describes itself as having “Portuguese flavors and Californian sensibilities.”
And also, deep down, some Rhode Island ties. Goin is from Los Angeles, but when she was working in Rhode Island at Al Forno and Angels in the 1980s, she’d go to VFW posts with fellow cooks to eat Italian and Portuguese food — her first exposure to spicy pork and clams, linguica, piri piri peppers, and other Portuguese staples. She worked with the chef Jaime D’Oliveira, whose mom was French and whose dad was Portuguese.
“I was the lonely Californian restaurant ‘orphan’ and the D’Oliveiras would often include me in family events and meals — this was such an eye-opening experience for me, as I had never even met a Portuguese person until this point, never mind tasted the delicious food,” Goin said in an e-mail.
Caldo verde is a traditional Portuguese soup made of potatoes, kale, and sausage. And the restaurant that borrows its name has caldo verde on the menu — an inspiration, rather than an imitation. At $69, it’s filled with mussels and rock crab, with kale and full fingerling potatoes.
It is decidedly not humble. It doesn’t have to be humble. It was delicious. Some Portugal, some Los Angeles, but at its base, quite a lot of Rhode Island.