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RI FOOD & DINING

Is the real calamari state Rhode Island ... or California?

A proud Rhode Islander was surprised to hear that Monterey, California, also calls itself the calamari capital. Turns out both coasts have good reason to be proud.

On the menu at Abalonetti Bar & Grill in Monterey, California, are more than a dozen preparations of calamari, from calamari and chips to calamari tacos, with a section of “Famous Calamari Entrees” like the “Marty special,” calamari filets over fried eggplant, topped with marinara, parmesan and mozzarella.Julie Tremaine

“You should check out Monterey,” the woman said to me. “It’s the calamari capital of the world.”

It was like I heard a record scratch. My face twisted into a scowl. “Have …” I started, stopped to gather my composure, and started again, “You haven’t heard of Rhode Island?”

I had no idea I had so much hometown pride about our official state appetizer until someone challenged Rhode Island’s claim to the calamari crown. But once I found out about this upstart on the West Coast, well, I went into tiger mom mode. I needed to find out what they were doing in Monterey, and more importantly, whether the city deserved to call itself the calamari capital of anything.

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On California’s Central Coast, close to Big Sur and Carmel-by-the-Sea, Monterey is an unmistakably Californian place, but it definitely has some whispers of Narragansett to it, Galilee especially. If you can get past the fact that the ocean is on the wrong side, and that the boats in front of you are facing west, not east, you’ll see a city built around the water, not just as a geographical feature, but as the center of the residents’ livelihoods and way of life.

Monterey is an unmistakably Californian place, but it definitely has some whispers of Narragansett. Julie Tremaine

The abundant fish in Monterey Bay sustained the Rumsen Ohlone tribe for generations upon generations. When the area was colonized by Spanish conquistadors in 1602 and named Monterey, it quickly became a central shipping port through which, at one point, all shipping-based deliveries into California were legally required to pass. (Think of it like a pre-statehood Quonset Point.)

As the fishing industry in Monterey Bay grew, squid fishing became increasingly important — in large part, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, because Chinese migrant fishermen were pushed out of other fishing grounds and found their own successful niche in night fishing for California market squid. In the early 1900s, the city had huge growth in fishing, opening processing plants in what became known as Cannery Row (the place that inspired the John Steinbeck novel of the same name). When overfishing decimated the marine life population in Monterey Bay, the canneries shut down, but squid fishing remains a huge local industry.

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Cannery Row is now a tourist destination and home to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is where I started my day in Monterey. Knowing I was going to have a big seafood dinner that night, it may have been a mistake. I was feeling major guilt walking through their new “Into The Deep” exhibition, which the aquarium says has the largest collection of deep-sea creatures in North America. This collection included a mind-blowingly enormous Japanese spider crab, which has a 12-foot leg span, and you can watch live here. Seeing that guy felt especially bad knowing I would shortly be ordering Dungeness crab, a true Northern California delicacy, which rivals squid for the most valuable catch in Monterey.

The aquarium also focuses on sustainability, and has a Seafood Watch program that educates the public — including restaurants — about choosing sustainable seafood. At the top of that list: California market squid, the main source of West Coast calamari, which is rated as “best choice / buy first” because of the lessened risk of overfishing and the minimal impact its being fished has on other species.

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At Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey, a pier that was once purely commercial and is now a huge tourist draw, filled with restaurants, whale watch cruises and gift shops. At one stall, you could walk up and buy a cup of marinated calamari or crab cocktail to eat as you strolled.Julie Tremaine

I left the aquarium and made my way over to Fisherman’s Wharf, a pier that was once purely commercial and is now a huge tourist draw, filled with restaurants, whale watch cruises and gift shops. At one stall, you could walk up and buy a cup of marinated calamari or crab cocktail to eat as you strolled. At others, the same, only with ice cream and candy. All of the menus at the restaurants on the wharf featured calamari in more than one preparation, but I was headed to the most famous of them all: Abalonetti Bar & Grill.

Call it the Aunt Carrie’s of Monterey. You wouldn’t be far off, though Aunt Carrie’s has been serving since 1920 and Abalonetti since 1951. Inside, tables covered in checked tablecloths look out onto the pier and at the sailboats beyond. Outside, the view is the same, but you have to keep one eye on the seagulls looking to share your dinner. On the menu: more than a dozen preparations of calamari, from calamari and chips to calamari tacos, with a section of “Famous Calamari Entrees” like the “Marty special,” calamari filets over fried eggplant, topped with marinara, parmesan and mozzarella.

Nary a Rhode Island-style preparation — deep-fried rings and tentacles with hot peppers, lemon and a side of marinara — to be seen. If you were guessing I was dubious about what I was ordering when I asked for the “Fried Monterey Calamari” (“Voted best in Monterey year after year!” the menu promised), you’d be right.

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“Abalonetti” is the term used for when squid is prepared in the same way as abalone: Remove the skin, split open the squid, and pound the calamari until it’s thin and tender. When the server brought mine over, he did so with no small amount of pride. “This is some of the best calamari in the world,” he said. “You’re going to love it.”

“Abalonetti” is the term used for squid prepared in the same way as abalone: Remove the skin, split open the squid, and pound the calamari until it’s thin and tender. Julie Tremaine

We’ll see, I thought to myself. I took a bite. It was everything the restaurant had promised. Instead of rings and tentacles, there were large, thin, flat chunks of calamari on my plate, breaded with seasoned breadcrumbs and fried into delicately crispy bites. The squid was flavorful on its own, and came with cocktail sauce that had the best kind of horseradish punch, and light tartar sauce redolent of fresh dill.

The server was right. It was some of the best calamari I had ever had. It has to do with not just the preparation of the squid, but its freshness. Abalonetti, managing partner Kevin Phillips told Edible Monterey, buys only fresh Monterey Bay squid and employs a full-time staff member to process more than 1,000 pounds of squid in-house every week (about 70,000 pounds annually). Most of the squid that ends up on American plates, whether it’s from Galilee or Monterey, has been shipped to China for processing, where labor is cheaper and more plentiful, and sent back to America.

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So who wins the calamari crown? Well, it depends on how you’re judging the winner. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Rhode Island brought in over 33 million pounds of commercial squid in 2020, valued at just under $25 million. In the same year, California brought in 45 million pounds, valued at just over $26 million. But keep in mind that 149 Rhode Islands could fit into California. In that context, it certainly seems like Little Rhody is doing significantly more volume in the squid trade per capita. But when it comes to hard numbers, Monterey comes out the victor. It’s hard to know exactly what percentage of California market squid comes out of Monterey Bay, in the same way it’s hard to know exactly what percentage of longfin and illex squid caught in Rhode Island come through the Port of Galilee — but the two places are the centers of their respective state squid industries, so it’s safe to say “most of it.”

In 2021, Rhode Island brought in over 38 million pounds of longfin and illex squid, valued at nearly $34 million. California’s 2021-22 catch was triple that of the previous year, worth over $75 million.

But then, there’s public reputation to consider. “Point Judith Calamari” is on menus across America, even in California, everywhere from San Jose in the San Francisco Bay area, to Beverly Hills. “Monterey Bay Calamari” doesn’t have the same kind of market share — but that’s because more than 90 percent of the West Coast squid catch goes to Asia, where the food is significantly more popular. And let’s not forget about that viral moment from the 2020 Democratic National Convention, when a plate of calamari from Iggy’s Boardwalk on Oakland Beach was the breakout star of the show and trended nationally on Twitter.

So maybe that’s how we slice it. Rhode Island wins the hearts (and stomachs) of America. Monterey wins the rest of the world.