The signature dish of Rhode Island's Blackstone River Valley.


Chicken Family-Style at the Bocce Club, Woonsocket.

What is chicken family-style?

Chicken family-style is an all-you-can-eat meal of roasted chicken, salad, pasta, potato, and rolls, arguably unique to the Blackstone River Valley.

A chicken in every tummy

Most people know that Rhode Island is great for seafood, and they may even have heard that we have a funny kind of little hot dog known as the New York System, but one of the state's best-kept culinary secrets is largely unknown outside of northern Rhode Island's Blackstone River Valley. Family-style chicken dinners, an all-you-can-eat meal of chicken and pasta, have been a local favorite since the 1930s.

The American Industrial Revolution was born in the Valley around 1793. The hundreds of mills and factories that sprang up along the Blackstone and its tributaries in the wake of the founding of Samuel Slater's mill in Pawtucket required a substantial workforce. Thousands of immigrants from many nations came here to work long hours for little pay in pursuit of their American Dreams. (In fact, for several decades in the 1800s, Central Falls, only one mile square, was the most densely populated city in the United States). Many of them succeeded, and their honest work ethic and strong family traditions live on in the neighborhoods, businesses, and local ethnic organizations of the area.

Chicken family-style is a big part of those local traditions, but when you speak to residents about that meal being unique to their valley, they don't recognize its singularity.

"All states have chicken family-style, don't they?" a local business person was once heard to remark.

Nope. You can find elsewhere the individual elements that make up the meal, but nowhere else can you find a traditional meal that is prepared, configured, and presented in this particular way. Perhaps more importantly than that, the uniqueness of chicken family-style is defined by tradition and by the nine-community, 241-square-mile Blackstone Valley region in which it is exclusively found.

In January 1990, Yankee magazine ran an article about the meal in which writer Bonnie Tandy Leblang noted that "Nine out of ten weddings in northern Rhode Island feature chicken family-style." She further contended that this dish made up more than half of all orders in area restaurants, and that at one restaurant offering a full menu, it accounted for ninety percent of all orders.

If you live or work in the Blackstone Valley, it's pretty much a given that weddings, anniversaries, award dinners, business gatherings, or political fundraisers mean chicken family-style.

Anatomy of a delicious meal

A proper chicken family-style dinner is served at the table, never as a buffet. It starts with fresh bread and butter, followed by salad in huge bowls. Each restaurant offers its own salad dressing, usually a variation on Italian or plain oil and vinegar. Soup is sometimes offered as an option instead of (or in addition to) salad.

Next come your starches: a bowl of pasta with herbed tomato sauce, and french fries or roasted potatoes. Each restaurant offers a different type of pasta. Don't fill up on this stuff, because you'll want to save room for the chicken.

The poultry parts usually come in bowls; the legs, thighs, and breasts are seasoned and roasted until the meat is falling-apart tender. Diners serve themselves, and if they run out, they can ask for more at no additional cost. Rotisserie chicken from chains like Boston Chicken is fine, but roasted chicken at one of the Blackstone Valley's many family restaurants is better. Most of you will swear it's the best chicken you've ever tasted (the dissenting minority should have their taste buds checked).

Your gluttonous orgy may take its toll on your waistline, but not so on your wallet. Per person, meals usually run about nine or ten bucks (as of 2004), and kids are even cheaper to feed. For a little more than the price of a typical fast-food meal, anyone can afford a wholesome banquet.

At least a dozen restaurants in the Valley serve this meal, varying but slightly from establishment to establishment. Two especially notable locations are the Bocce Club in Woonsocket, and Wright's Farm Restaurant in Burrillville.

The Bocce Club

In the 1930s, so the story goes, chicken family-style was born at the home of Italian immigrants in Woonsocket. Family and friends would gather at the end of the work week at the Pavoni home on St. Louis Avenue to drink homemade wine and play the Italian lawn bowling game of bocce in the "first indoor court of its kind." Faced with feeding dozens of people each weekend during the Depression years, Mama Pavoni came up with an inexpensive meal of roasted chicken prepared with olive oil and fresh rosemary. Pasta, salad, and french fries were added, and the meal became a tradition.

Eventually, Mary Ann (Delgado) Tavernier, a stepdaughter of the Pavonis, and her husband, "Tivvy," opened a small restaurant in the basement of the family home and called it the Bocce Club. Back then, the price of the chicken meal was just sixty-five cents.

One diner recalled what it was like in the years following World War II: "The meals were served in the kitchen of their tenement by reservation only. The waiting list was weeks. If you weren't there, on time, it would be necessary to start all over again. This was by word of mouth and the real beginning of 'home-style family-style chicken.' And it was excellent. That is where I had my first taste."

In the early 1950s the original bocce court was lifted by a giant crane and placed on a new foundation, expanding dining capacity to 200 seats. Soon after, with the completion of a large banquet room, seating for another 300 guests was added. Still, waiting lines were not uncommon. Sundays were especially popular as area residents would bring their own pots and pans for family take-out dinners. One Mother's Day approximately 2,100 guests were served.

The restaurant's fame even reached the offices of Life magazine, but when she was approached for an interview, Mrs. Tavernier, out of shyness, declined.

Such success does not go unnoticed, and it's no wonder that imitators of the original "Bocce Style" concept soon popped up. The Bocce Club, however, claims the distinction of being the only restaurant that still uses pure olive oil in the preparation of its chicken.

In 1996 the Joe Gaspar family purchased the Bocce Club from Theodore, the son of Mary and Tivvy Tavernier, continuing the delicious traditions established in the basement kitchen so long ago.

Today, in addition to the main entree, the chicken dinner at the Bocce includes homemade all-natural bread loaves, antipasto salad, fresh french fries, Italian-style potatoes roasted in olive oil, and imported pasta with a chunky, homemade sauce, all priced under eight dollars (as of 2004). Children under two are served at no cost. Although the Bocce offers a full menu, chicken family-style still accounts for up to seventy percent of all orders.

Bocce Club
226 St. Louis Avenue, Woonsocket
(401) 767-2000

Wright's Farm Restaurant

Gene Wright was the main supplier of chickens for the Bocce Club. In the early 1950s he began running outdoor dinner events for organizations like the Knights of Columbus out of a garage on his farm in Harrisville. He cut feed barrels in half lengthwise and used them as makeshift chicken barbecues. These events were so well received that, in 1954, Wright took a customer's suggestion and opened a proper restaurant—Wright's Farm Restaurant.

In 1972, when Wright's was purchased by the Frank T. Galleshaw, Jr., family, the restaurant seated 400 people. It bothered Galleshaw that patrons often had to wait twenty minutes or more to get a seat, so he embarked on a program of incremental expansion. Every few years he added another room. Today Wright's can seat more than 1,000 people in its six dining rooms, although for special events, 1,400 to 1,500 can be accommodated at once. Despite the huge number of seats, however, it's still not unusual for customers to wait for an hour or more at peak times. Helpful tip: arrive early.

"Traffic that's coming to Burrillville," bragged Frank Jr. to Rhode Island Monthly in 1997, "is coming to Wright's Farm Restaurant." (Frank Jr. died in a moped accident in Narragansett in 2000. Management of Wright's passed into the hands of his son, Frank III).

The wait to get in can be lengthy, but once you're seated, food will begin arriving at your table within minutes. There's no need to fight over who gets which parts of the bird—you can always ask for more of whatever you're lacking.

The setup at Wright's is enormous. To look into the restaurant's operations is to wallow in statistics: In addition to the six dining rooms, there are two kitchens, four full bars, four lounges, and a Keno parlor. There's a 4,000 square-foot gift shop (run by Frank III's wife, Susan, and his sister, Tammy), where you can buy toys, candy, sixteen flavors of homemade fudge, and popular products like Wright's pasta sauce and Italian dressing. (Wright's products can be found in more than 500 New England stores, as well.) There's also a take-out window near the front door, instituted in the late 1970s, for folks in a hurry.

The kitchens contain seventy-five gas-fired Garland ovens used to roast the 14,000 pounds of chicken that are devoured by patrons each week. Sixty gallons of tomato sauce are simmered each night in huge steam kettles. 100 gallons of salad dressing and 12,000 pounds of french fries are prepared every week.

170 employees (including 42 servers), many of whom are Burrillville residents, keep everything running smoothly in the maze of rooms. The place is so huge, that patrons have been known to become lost returning from the restroom. Seriously.

Although chickens haven't been raised there for some time (a grower in Delaware is the exclusive supplier), Wright's still retains a farm-like feel. The sprawling complex of barn- and farmhouse-like buildings sits on 52 acres of trimmed, rolling meadowlands framed by woods and white fences. Not everyone appreciates the ambiance, however. According to the Phantom Gourmet, Wright's has a "décor reminiscent of the best retirement communities." But for many people, the combination of to-die-for chicken and pastoral setting makes it the perfect place for outings and wedding receptions. Just ask Congressman Patrick Kennedy—in 1997 he held his thirtieth birthday party there for 1,000 friends and supporters.

Wright's chicken meals inspire extreme behaviors in some people. In a 1989 review in the Providence Journal, the reviewers noted that they "sat next to a couple who have been driving 52 miles from Charlestown, Massachusetts, every Sunday afternoon for eight years to eat at Wright's." In 1996, according to Rhode Island Monthly, a "three-hundred pound fellow... came in... and proceeded, by himself, to eat eight whole chickens." Wright's is a popular destination for high school football teams, groups of Cub Scouts, and Little Leaguers, with meals often devolving into impromptu chicken-eating contests.

Don't like chicken, or just in the mood for something different? Wright's offers an $18 (as of 2004) sixteen-ounce steak for you contrarians. Just know that you'll stick out like a bull in a chicken coop as only thirty to forty patrons choose that option in a given week. That means that more than ninety-nine percent of customers are there for the $9.75 chicken meal. Children under four get their chicken for $5.75.

Wright's Farm Restaurant
84 Inman Road, Harrisville, Burrillville
(401) 769-2856
www.wrightsfarm.com

Chicken-crazy

Why is this meal so popular in the Blackstone Valley? Is it because residents grew up with it and want to maintain a cultural tradition? Is it because, even for non-residents, the family-style concept harkens back to a simpler time of country fairs, bare feet, and apple-cheeked grandmas? Is it a backlash against homogenized, over-processed, regionally undistinguished fast-food?

Or is chicken family-style just really, really good?

This article last edited January 6, 2005

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