One in a series on iconic New England eateries.
PROVIDENCE — The last time we stopped at Olneyville New York System, most of the acoustic anarcho-punk band Blackbird Raum were holding down a booth and Rick Rolle, who prefers to be known as DJ Soundscape, had just taken a stool at the counter. We had heard that the wiener shop was a big draw after the clubs let out (it sells through a sliding window until 3 a.m. on weekends), but it was only lunchtime. On a weekday.
Apparently even rockers have to eat lunch, and the Olneyville New York System wiener seems to especially appeal to people who make rhythmic loud noise for a living. The charmingly scruffy California band members were in town on a tour and had been pining for Olneyville’s version of a New York system wiener since their last visit a couple of years earlier.
Rolle is luckier. He lives in Cranston and is an Olneyville regular. “We stop here every night coming out of the clubs,” he told us as he straightened the shades on his baseball cap. “I’ve tried other places but no one else can master the wiener like these guys.”
Despite the name, the sausage in question is a particularly Rhode Island culinary delicacy. It is most emphatically not a hot dog, though those of us who don’t have coffee milk in our veins can be pardoned for the mistake. It is a wiener, which is a narrower, spicier sausage — kind of like what a Vienna sausage might be when it grows up. It’s cooked on a grill, plopped into a steamed bun, and topped with a “secret recipe” spicy meat sauce, mustard, chopped white onion, and celery salt. In fact, it’s been suggested that the New York system wiener operations in Rhode Island keep the celery salt makers in business.
The origins are a matter more of legend than recorded historical fact, and Jimmy Saccoccio, who has worked at Olneyville for 45 years, readily admits that “we’re not the first,” but quickly adds “we’re the best.” Olneyville’s wieners are manufactured specially for the shop and feature natural casings. “They come in continuous 10-pound rolls,” says Saccoccio, “and we cut them by hand. It’s more work, but it’s tradition.” Indeed, some wiener fans refuse to eat a wiener where both ends of the sausage are sealed like a hot dog. “We make the meat sauce every day in the back,” Saccoccio adds.
For what it’s worth, the shop sells a spice pack for customers who want to try to replicate the sauce. Several regulars attest that no matter how hard they try, it never tastes quite the same.
There’s a system to the New York system. In an authentic joint, the grill is always by the window but the steam table where the buns are held is at a 90-degree angle so the cook can face the customers. On our last visit, George Gomes was manning the grill and assembling wieners a half dozen at a time. It made his job easier that customers generally prefer them “all the way,” although some eschew the raw onions. On request, Gomes will do the old wiener grill man trick of stacking the buns between his wrist and elbow to apply the condiments. “It’s kind of messy,” he admits, “but people like to see it.”
Especially just after the bars close.
Olneyville New York System
20 Plainfield St. (Olneyville Square), Providence, 401-621-9500, www.olneyvillenewyorksystem.com. Mon-Thu 10 a.m.-2 a.m., Fri-Sat 10 a.m.-3 a.m., Sun 8 a.m.-2 a.m. Hot wieners $2.15, wiener special (two wieners, small fries, drink) $7.99.
Lyon, authors of “Food Lovers’ Guide to Rhode Island,” can be reached at harris.lyon@veri