Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner

By Christopher Martin / Photography By Madeline Polss | September 18, 2010
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Roasted chicken at the Bocce Club, RI
Fernanda Gaspar pulls heavy trays of roasted chicken out of the oven at the Bocce Club.

Few partnerships last as long as that of the culinary components that make up the Blackstone River Valley’s signature dish, family-style chicken. Perhaps more remarkable than its longevity is that the meal, while it has its variations, is little changed from its humble beginnings.

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 workweek 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. Salad, pasta 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 65 cents. Many things have changed at the Bocce Club since then—the bocce court became a banquet hall, a full menu was instituted, and the restaurant changed hands, purchased in 1996 by the Joe Gaspar family—but the chicken meal that started it all remains the biggest seller.

Peeling Potatoes at Bocce Club for Chicken Dinner
The Chicken Dinner at the Bocce Club

If one can measure success by the number of imitators trying to ride the coattails of the original, then the Bocce Club’s tour de poulet of protein and starch is very successful indeed. Strangely, the imitators are all located almost exclusively within the Blackstone River Valley.

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, 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 slow-roasted until the meat is falling-apart tender.  Served family style, if diners 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, much better.Most of you will swear the tender, golden brown chicken is the best you’ve ever tasted (dissenters should have their taste buds checked).

At the Bocce Club Fernanda Gaspar still peels all the potatoes and cuts all the French fries by hand, makes homemade sauce for the pasta, home-baked bread, homemade salad dressing and pretty much everything else in the kitchen, including the soup. And the roast chicken, with plenty of rosemary, is, of course, delicious.

Your gluttonous orgy may take its toll on your waistline but not so on your wallet. Per person, meals usually run about $9 to 11 bucks, and kids are even cheaper to feed. For a little more than the price of a typi cal fast-food meal, anyone can afford a wholesome banquet, and take home leftovers to boot.

Bocce Club may have been the originator but Wright’s Farm Restaurant in Nasonville is the biggest purveyor of family-style chicken in the region.

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 20 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.

To serve so many patrons efficiently, a robust front- and back-of the-house infrastructure is required. In addition to the six dining rooms, there are two kitchens, four full bars, four lounges and a Keno parlor.  The kitchens contain 75 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.

Bocce and Wright’s are the two biggies but there are numerous other restaurants in the region that have their fans.

One is the Village Haven in North Smithfield, which has been around since 1972. Patrons love the fact that the meal comes with homemade cinnamon rolls. The chicken dinner also includes dessert—a tiny cup of Hershey’s ice cream that, once you get over your initial surprise, may bring you right back to your childhood.

Broaster House in Woonsocket, established in 1982, offers a distinctive variation on the roasted chicken, employing a patented process that involves a pressurized fryer. The result, after only about 10 minutes of cooking, is the falling-off-the-bone texture we expect from family style roasted chicken but with a crispy, fried-chicken-like skin. The chunky fried potato wedges nestled in amongst the regular French fries are a nice touch, too.

Whichever eatery you choose as your favorite, know that when you go you are not only treating yourself to a traditional, wholesome and inexpensive meal but you are also witness to one of the longest-running marriages in Rhode Island cookery. Roasted chicken, salad, bread, pasta with sauce, and potatoes—may they never be parted.

Where to Get Your Chicken Dinner in RI

Bocce Club
226 St. Louis Ave.,Woonsocket 401-767-2000

Wright’s Farm Restaurant
84 Inman Rd., Harrisville 401-769-2856

The Village Haven
90 School St., Forestdale, North Smithfield

Broaster House
263 Pond St.,Woonsocket  401-762-1717

The Pines
1204 Pound Hill Rd., North Smithfield

Embassy Club
77 Havelock St.,Woonsocket  401-762-5353

The Lodge Pub and Eatery
40 Breakneck Hill Rd., Route 123, Lincoln

Article from Edible Rhody at
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