Metro, News

Wieners sizzle at Olneyville NY System

Local establishment maintains unique R.I. food culture, late night eats, family history

Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Wieners ordered “all the way” at the late-night establishment are traditionally loaded up on the chef’s arm and served piping hot.

It’s midnight in Olneyville. A chef opens up a steam drawer and takes out three golden side-cut rolls, warm and soft. He lines them up on one arm, slides a shining wiener in each, loads them with mustard, celery salt, spiced meat sauce and chopped onions. The wieners, ordered “three all the way,” are served with frothy coffee milk — a uniquely Rhode Island meal, available until 3 a.m. in this local haunt.

On a recent weekend night, Tripp Harwell ’22, stopping at the joint after a night out, stood at the counter and ordered “two hot dogs.”

“Hot dogs?” the chef said. “Wieners,” Harwell corrected himself. Satisfied, the chef nodded and took his order.

Olneyville New York System has been serving the same wieners — not hot dogs — for as long as fourth-generation owner Greg Stevens can remember. The store, which sells a variety of wieners in the classic “New York System” style, won a prestigious James Beard Classics Award in 2014. A New York System wiener differs from the traditional “hot-dog” because of its Rhode Island roots, unique size (four inches, as opposed to six), composition (a combination of beef, veal and pork) and ceremonial method of preparation.

Stevens now runs the shop, started by his great-grandfather Anthony in 1954, with his sister Stephanie Stevens Turini. Stevens’ family came to the United States from Greece in the 1930s, settled in Brooklyn and ran a small restaurant at 1181 Broadway for around 15 years. After a friend invited the family to Providence to help run a New York System restaurant there, they relocated to the Ocean State. In 1954, Stevens’ great-grandfather and grandfather established the current Olneyville New York System.

Since then, the store has strived for consistency in their product.

“A lot of newer restaurants go with change, go with trends, go with originality,” Stevens said. “For here, we keep it exactly the same. That’s the secret to our success, I think.” He pointed to the original 1954 formica tabletops, mirror and paneling around the store. “The originality and history has made this place and I strive to keep it the same.”

For example, Olneyville’s wiener buns have been sourced from the same bakery — Rumstead, R.I.-Homestead Baking — for approximately 50 years. TJ Pascalides, the bakery’s manager, is the fourth generation of his family to work in the baking business. Like Stevens, his great-grandfather started his restaurant career by setting up shop in Providence.

“Our buns are pretty resilient,” Pascalides said. “The resilience comes from a higher protein flour we use. … That gives it a little bit more strength so that when they steam it they can still break apart the roll on a cut and it doesn’t fall apart.”

Olneyville gets their coffee milk from A.B. Munroe Dairy, a R.I. company founded in 1881. Stephen Genuario, a Munroe Daily representative, said the Munroe Coffee Milk is distinguished by the quality of their milk — fresh from a family cooperative of farms in Pomfret, Connecticut and pasteurized slowly at lower heat to preserve the flavor of the whole milk.

This attention to detail is vital to Stevens, who takes pride in “keeping the tradition going.”

The pride comes with a unique, Rhode Island twist — Olneyville has its own lingo for their food. Their signature style of french fries, which are served with vinegar, ketchup and salt, are called “fried beef stew” in local slang. A grilled cheese is a “mouse trap.” A wiener with all the toppings is “all the way,” and is never served with ketchup.

“They’ll make fun of you if you order wrong,” said regular customer Pete Kelly ’19. “I think that that’s funny and I kind of appreciate it.” His order is a hot wiener special with a coke, wiener “all the way.” “This is a cultural institution, this place. They have the right to make fun of you for not knowing how to order,” he added.

Olneyville New York System’s consistency has served as the backdrop to countless stories, according to Stevens, who has been working at the shop since 1975.

Stevens has seen proposals and dates, rowdy drunks and casino-goers, children brought by their parents and an elderly woman who orders her toast burnt black enough to set off the smoke alarm.

Stevens recounted one customer who would come in regularly with his uncle. The uncle passed away, but the customer still comes regularly. Whenever he comes in, the staff give him an extra wiener. He puts it on a plate next to him, untouched, eats his own food and leaves.

Olneyville cook Nick Barros described a photographer for Channel 10 who would regularly come in to eat, until he passed away. Now, every year, his family comes in with his photos and eats dinner at the restaurant. A signed photo of his, displaying the store’s neon sign and glowing windows, hangs above the griddle.

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