Chicken riggies, the unofficial signature dish of Central New York,
is a seemingly straightforward recipe that combines rigatoni pasta and
tender chicken spiced with cherry peppers. But to the thousands of
fervent riggie enthusiasts in the Syracuse area, it’s not quite that
Pink sauce, vodka sauce, cream sauce, traditional marinara—there are
fans in each camp. Some riggie chefs add mushrooms, olives or paprika.
Others get boozy with a splash of red wine, white wine and even vodka.
Rachael Ray’s 30-minute version includes chicken thighs and
cubanelle peppers, which created a firestorm on online message boards.
Apparently, Ray’s unwelcome additions (and her comment that riggies are
a Western New York specialty) were not so “yum-o” to local viewers.
If there were such a thing as a riggie expert, Shelly Northrup could
take the title. Northrup is development director of the YWCA Mohawk
Valley, and she has helped organize every RiggieFest, the annual
chicken riggie cook-off in Utica, since the event started in 2005.
Held at the Utica Memorial Auditorium to benefit the YWCA,
RiggieFest began as a way to celebrate the popular dish and bring
Italian food lovers together. Area restaurants serve up their riggies,
and the crowd of more than 4,000 votes for the best.
This year, for the first time, culinary experts from Syracuse
University and Onondaga Community College will comprise the panel of
judges, and after a blind tasting, will award one restaurant with prize
money of $500 and the prestigious Riggie Cup. Tasters will still
vote—the most popular recipe will be named “crowd favorite.”
Northrup has tasted “about a million” riggie recipes over the years,
and has heard plenty of chefs claim that their take on the dish is the
best. Indian restaurants have entered riggies flavored with curry and
other Indian spices. One Mexican-inspired recipe got its spice from
jalapenos and chilies instead of cherry peppers. “The ingredients vary
quite a bit,” she says, “but that’s what’s exciting about it.”
While the recipe for perfect riggies is mostly a matter of “personal
preference,” says Northrup, the riggies that have taken the cup in
years past are traditional, simple and tasty. “It seems like people
enjoy all the different variations, but the winner is always the
classic recipe,” says Northrup. “Just riggies, chicken and that
delicious spicy sauce.”
For a dish with such a fanatical local fan base, it’s no surprise
that even in Syracuse the amount of controversy that surrounds the
recipe is just as heated as the spicy entrée itself. The zesty dish is
on the menu at almost every Italian eatery in the area, and naturally,
each restaurant boasts a different recipe and a chef that claims to do
riggies the right way—however you define “right.”
At Dominick’s, 1370 Burnet Ave. (471-4262), a simple, cream-based
sauce has made riggies a customer favorite for years, says manager
Cindy Harrington. Chicken riggies are the restaurant’s most popular
dish, especially on the catering side, where riggies make up nearly 80
percent of all catering orders.
“People come back again and again for our riggies,” says Harrington,
who notes that Dominick’s version is not as spicy as other renditions.
“The spiciness is not overpowering.” A touch of cream cools Dominick’s
sauce, while still leaving “the perfect spicy kick.”
Riggies weren’t on the menu at Rico’s, 320 E. First St., East
Syracuse (432-1862), until seven years ago, says manager Steven
Geremia. “The dish was a special for a while,” he says. “But there was
such a demand for it that we finally put it on the menu.”
Rico’s riggies are smothered in a simple marinara sauce: “No cream,
no vodka,” says Geremia. Rico’s diners can customize their riggies’
spice factor (mild, medium, hot) based on their ability to handle the
heat. Most people opt for medium, says Geremia. “You still get the
flavor from the peppers without it being too spicy.”
But don’t expect Rico’s to make any other changes to their riggies:
The family recipe regularly receives raves from customers. “People love
it,” says Geremia. “So we’ll never change a thing.”
At Francesca’s Cucina, 545 N. Salina St. (425-1556), good riggies
are all in the details. The restaurant’s version is the No. 1 selling
pasta entrée, and co-owner Gary Angeloro credits the subtle touches.
“It’s all about how the peppers and onions are cooked,” he says. “If
they’re cooked ahead of time, they lose some of that crunch.” Which is
why Francesca’s chefs sauté the vegetable mixture in the pan with the
chicken, allowing the flavors to meld and the peppers and onions to
retain their crisp texture.
Francesca’s sauce, says Angeloro, is similar to a pink vodka sauce,
with some added spice from the cherry peppers, of course. “You’ve got
to have that spiciness with riggies,” he says, though customers can opt
to tone down the heat when they order.
This year’s Riggiefest is Saturday, April 24, noon to 3 p.m., at
the Utica Memorial Auditorium, 400 Oriskany St., W. Tickets are $10,
available at Ticket Master (www.ticketmaster.com), the Utica Memorial
Auditorium box office, or at the YWCA Mohawk Valley, 1000 Cornelia St.,
Utica. For more information, call 732-2159.