Rhode Island-Style Calamari Is the Best Calamari

An iconic burger joint shares their recipe for fried calamari with peppers and garlic

September 1, 2023 6:04 am
rhode island style calamari in a white bowl on a white and red checkered tablecloth
Crispy, savory, satisfying
P.J. Clarke's

In 2013, Rhode Island House of Representatives member Joseph McNamara launched a campaign to make his state as synonymous with squid as Idaho is with potatoes. The following year, after weathering protests from the quahog coalition, McNamara prevailed — baskets of fried squid with garlic and peppers were handed out as the bill naming calamari the official appetizer of Rhode Island was ceremonially signed into law at a fishing port. Six years later during the virtual Democratic National Convention in summer 2020, McNamara called Rhode Island the “Calamari Comeback State” while standing on a beach alongside a mask-clad chef holding a plate of fried squid with garlic, parsley and peppers. “Our state appetizer, calamari, is available in all 50 states,” McNamara said.

McNamara may have been exaggerating, but Rhode Island-style calamari certainly can be found outside of The Ocean State if you know where to look. A good place to start if you’re in New York, Philadelphia or D.C. is at the 140-year-old burger joint P.J. Clarke’s. As the executive chef of P.J. Clarke’s for nearly two decades, Michael DeFonzo has had the signature dish on the menu long before McNamara had calamari’s status as Rhode Island’s official appetizer signed into law.

“I’m from New York and grew up eating calamari,” DeFonzo tells InsideHook. “We used to do a lot of vacationing up in New England and would end up in Rhode Island. When we’d get calamari on vacation, it wasn’t the way we would get it in Brooklyn. It would have all these pickled peppers on it, and we loved it. It had flavors we knew and were familiar with, but it was different. The spice that comes with the peppers really changes it. When I came to P.J.’s and we were brainstorming about how to do calamari differently, I remembered.”

calamari with lemon and peppers in a white bowl on a red and white checkered tablecloth
Rhode Island made calamari its official state appetizer in 2014
P.J. Clarke’s

To make the fish shack staple more presentable for P.J.’s customers, DeFonzo and his team had to figure out a way to make the dish less greasy. “When you’re sitting at a picnic table next to the ocean, it’s amazing,” he says. “Our first version had a lot more olive oil, but people don’t love greasy. Even though it was olive oil, people were associating it with fry oil. It was trial and error and it probably took seven or eight months before I was really happy with it.”

In addition to determining the perfect amount of oil to use, DeFonzo also had to figure out the best balance of peppers and garlic for his calamari. “We use a mild pickled pepper and hot pickled pepper so it doesn’t come out too spicy,” he says. “You want that spicy brininess to balance out with the sweetness from the garlic. You can’t overcook the garlic because you don’t want to bring out any bitterness. The pickle flavor and the sweetness and spice meld together really nicely. Calamari is sort of like the tofu of the sea — tt just carries whatever flavor you’re putting with it.”

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To further make the Rhode Island calamari at P.J. Clarke’s stand out, DeFonzo made one final tweak. “Most people expect calamari to be cut in rings, especially when you fry it,” he says. “We don’t cut rings. We cut more or less square shapes out of the calamari. I believe that allows us to cook it for less time so the calamari is more tender than what most people are used to. I’ve eaten a lot of calamari in my life and have never seen it cut the way we cut it. I think it really changes the texture when you’re eating it.”

Try the recipe below to see for yourself.

P.J. Clarke’s Rhode Island Calamari

Servings: 8-10

  • ½ lb. AP Flour
  • 1 Tbsp. cornstarch
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 8 oz. pickled hot cherry peppers
  • 8 oz. pickled banana peppers
  • ¼ cup garlic, sliced extra thin
  • 8 fl. oz. extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 lbs. calamari tubes and tentacles
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 lemon, cut into wedges
  • 1 oz. Italian parsley, chopped
  • 1 oz. sea salt
  • For the flour dredge
    1. Thoroughly mix flour, cornstarch and kosher salt in a bowl and set aside.  

  • For pickled peppers and garlic
    1. Strain the peppers together in a colander and save the pickle brine on the side. Remove the stems and inside of the peppers, and discard.  

    2. Slice the peppers into “rings” or half “rings,” then rinse off with pickle brine to remove any lingering seeds. Discard the liquid now. 

    3. In a medium sauce pot, combine the olive oil and garlic and set on low heat. When garlic begins to bubble, watch it to prevent it from browning. When garlic begins to float, let cook for 45 seconds, turn off the heat, then carefully add peppers into hot oil and garlic. Stir carefully and let sit to combine flavors. Set aside until ready to cook the calamari. 

  • For the calamari
    1. Separate and clean the calamari. Be sure to remove the ink sac, quill, eyes and siphon. The fins, mantle, arms and tentacles are all useable. Rinse well in cold water and let sit in a colander to drain any excess water. 

    2. Slice the mantle in half lengthwise, then slice each side once or twice depending on desired piece size (twice is normal for bite-size pieces). Each piece should look like a square or rectangle. You can skip slicing the mantel in half if you wish to cut rings instead. 

    3. Mix the tentacles and mantle pieces together in a small bowl with the milk and let sit in the refrigerator until the oil is hot. 

    4. Heat the oil to 325 degrees. Dredge the calamari in the flour mix and shake off any excess. Be sure the pieces are completely covered. Lower into the fryer and cook until golden brown (about 2-3 minutes). Remove and let drain for a few seconds.

    5. Toss in a bowl with pickled peppers and garlic, then top with a pinch of sea salt and parsley. Serve with lemon wedges. (Dipping sauces are optional.) 


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