The Hot Wiener: A Rhode Island Icon
By Grace Lentini
Hot wieners are firmly planted in Rhode Island’s culinary psyche. They’re to the Ocean State what cheesesteak is to Philly, what barbecue is to Kansas City and what street tacos are to Los Angeles. Everyone has the wienie joint (their words, not ours) they grew up with, their gold standard against which all others are judged. There’s The Original New York System on Smith Street in Providence, Olneyville NY System, Sparky’s Coney Island System in East Providence (now closed), Wein-O-Rama in Cranston, Rod’s Grille in Warren, New York Lunch in Woonsocket, Sam’s New York System in North Providence, Snoopy’s Diner in North Kingstown and plenty more scattered throughout.
We wanted to know who served the very first hot wiener, so we asked wienie joint owners across the state, and the answer was always the same: hot wieners started at the Original New York System (424 Smith Street, Providence. 331-5349). It’s the OG of the wienie.
No matter where you go, getting them “all the way” is always the same: steamed bun, wienie, mustard, meat sauce, onion, celery salt. Of course you don’t have to get them all the way, but what fun is that? That’s like getting a cheesesteak without the cheese: you just don’t do it. However, what differs joint to joint is the meat sauce, with each place remaining as true as possible to their original recipe, some over 70 years old.
There are distinct differences between hot dogs and hot wieners: hot dogs are typically very processed, with a hodge podge of different cuts of meat. Hot wieners on the other hand are made with beef, pork, veal, spices and one preservative. There are two types of hot wieners that wienie joints use: ones in a natural casing, and ones without. According to Greg Stevens, the owner of Olneyville NY System(18 Plainfield Street, Providence. 621-9500, OlneyvilleNewYorkSystem.com) who is directly related to the family who first served hot wieners in RI, it’s tradition to serve hot wieners that have a natural casing. The wieners with a casing come as one long rope, meaning that each wiener must be cut by hand. Most joints get theirs from either Little Rhody Brand Frankfurts and Wieners (831-0815, LittleRhodyHotdogs.com), which makes skinless and rope wieners, or from All American (294-5455, All-American-Foods.com), who carry Marcello’s skinless, pre-formed wieners.
The consensus on hot wiener buns is that Homestead Baking Company of East Providence (145 North Broadway, Rumford. 434-0551, HomesteadBaking.com) bakes the buns that virtually everyone uses. “We make [the buns] sweeter than the typical hot dog roll,” says Homestead General Manager TJ Pascalides. “Restaurants are super particular about how they steam them up. Everyone has a different steamer and everyone leaves them in for a different amount of time, so we have to use a strong flour.”
To get an idea of the demand for the buns, Homestead receives shipments of 200,000 pounds of spring wheat flour at a time via railway. Three railway cars fit alongside the bakery, where the flour is then moved to three flour silos. One silo holds 150,000 pounds of flour, the other two hold 125,000 pounds each. Just as the meat sauce recipes never change at the restaurants, the bun recipe has also remained the same: sugar, water, flour and yeast.
As far as the onions sprinkled on top of the wieners, survey says that white onions are used. Everyone uses celery salt, although any information about the brand was held close to the vest. The mustard? Well, it’s not French’s. That’s about all the info the owners were willing to reveal. Same with the sauce. Everyone is tight lipped about their secret recipes, but some said that one of the most important factors in making a perfectly spreadable meat sauce is to use 70/30 ground beef. Fat is flavor, and no one’s eating a hot wiener for its health benefits.
Who Served them First?
It was in the early 1900s that Greek immigrants came to New York, passing through Ellis Island and settling in Brooklyn (most likely in the Coney Island section). As the Greeks moved out of Brooklyn and across the country, they brought with them and served up a form of hot dog or hot wiener which they covered in a Coney Island meat sauce.
We caught up with Greg to learn about his family history, and where the first hot wiener was served. As the story goes, Augustus Pappas and his son Ernie opened the Original New York System on Smith Street in Providence in 1927. In the late 1930s, Augustus Pappas fell ill, so Ernie called on his cousins Anthony and Nicholas Stavrianakos (Greg’s great grandfather and grandfather, respectively) to help run the restaurant. In 1933, Greg’s father, Peter, was born in New York where his name was shortened from Stavrianakos to Stevens. In 1946, Ernie no longer needed help running the Smith Street location. His son Gus eventually took over in the ‘60s, running the place until he retired in 2014. Once Gus retired, the business changed ownership and eventually had its doors closed for ten months. This past July, restaurateur Taner Zoprak bought the business, and plans to keep to the original recipes.
Back to Anthony and Nicholas. The father and son team branched out on their own after leaving the Original New York System and bought a small restaurant located at 11 Olneyville Square (where the bar Lonely Street is currently located). The restaurant was located right next to a taxi stand, which in 1954 was built over into a restaurant (the current location of Olneyville NY System). Anthony and Nicholas bought that space in 1964, and have been there ever since. In 1957 Nicholas passed away, and in 1958, Anthony passed away at age 97, working until his last day. Greg’s father Peter took over the business in 1958. Greg was born in 1960, and when he was old enough he worked at Olneyville NY System on weekends and during the summers. At the ripe age of 15 he knew he was going to join the family business, and in 1979 he started working full time, side by side with his dad until the early ‘90s when Peter retired. Greg and his sister Stephanie Stevens-Turini have operated the restaurant ever since.
More Wienie Joints
The Original New York System and Olneyville NY System opened their restaurants with the express goal of being hot wiener joints. Of course there’s plenty else on their menus, but folks typically go there for the wienies. Other restaurants have followed suit, while others have simply added hot wieners to their menu to get folks through the door.
Rod’s Grille in Warren in one of the restaurants that has had hot wieners on their menu since the day they opened in 1955. Meghan Rodrigues is the fourth generation to work at Rod’s Grille and credits her great grandmother with creating the meat sauce they use until this day. “My dad, grandmother or I make the sauce,” she says. “No one else knows the recipe. You have to follow every single step of the recipe or the taste will change.” Unlike the sauce at either the Original New York System or Olneyville, there is a touch of spice in it, which slowly builds as you eat it. Meghan also puts less onions on it compared to other places; she doesn’t want the onions to overpower the secret sauce. The sauce is so popular that their regulars regularly add it to other menu items, like the burgers.
The Future of Hot Wieners
One thing that rings true at every hot wiener restaurant is the need to stay true to the ingredients. “We’ve tried other products and they just don’t taste the same,” says Meghan Rodrigues. Greg Stevens of Olneyville is of the same mind. “Do not change a thing. That’s the theory with Olneyville NY System,” he says. “When people come in and have their hot wiener and coffee milk I’ll ask, ‘does it taste exactly as you remember?’ If they say yes, that’s the best compliment I can get. Keeping everything the same… it’s harder than it looks.”