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Lobstah Rolls 101: Local experts give us the 411 on eating in the 401

Dune Brothers; photo credit: Melissa McKelvey

To the first human who looked at a lobster and said, “I bet there’s good eatin’ inside that claw,” kudos to them. Lobsters look like giant, prehistoric, water-dwelling vinegaroons, and if you’ve never heard of a vinegaroon, you probably didn’t grow up in the Southwest and were spared the pure terror that comes when finding them your garage. (They are also known as “whip scorpions.” Google it if you dare.) 

Nevertheless, lobsters have become a staple of New England cuisine, particularly when they are de-shelled, dressed and stuffed into a hoagie roll. I decided to ask a couple of dedicated lobster roll enthusiasts to offer their top picks of the state. The first person I spoke to was Gina Pezza, a chef at Vanda Cucina, because she has dedicated an entire Instagram account to the rating of lobster rolls: @rhodyrolls401

Jenny Currier (Motif): Do you work with lobster, or do you just enjoy lobster?

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The Boat House; photo credit: Melissa McKelvey

Gina Pezza: It’s funny — I just like lobster rolls. I won’t buy lobster. I worked at Hemenways for three or four years, and I got lobstered out. But a couple of years ago I would go on bike rides and me and my friend, if we stopped to get lunch, we would always get a lobster roll. Obviously, it’s good. It’s cold, it’s easy to eat, and it’s not heavy. Then I just started really enjoying lobster rolls.

JC: Do people give you tips, or do you stumble upon the places you rate?

GP: This was just a fun project I started. I thought, I’ve gotta start writing these down so that the next year when I’m like, ‘What was the place that had good lobster rolls?’ I would remember which ones to go to. I went to get a lobster roll in January at a brewery, and that’s when I started it. A few people who follow me will give me pointers and other places to go to. Other than that, it’s just from being out and about. 

JC: Are you a native Rhode Islander?

Lobster Bar; photo credit: Melissa McKelvey

GP: I am! I’m from Johnston. 

JC: What are some of the things you think make a lobster roll great?

GP: [My rating system] has about four or five components. 

The first, obviously, is the main one: lobster. Is it fresh or frozen? I’ve even had fresh ones that weren’t cooked properly or were overcooked. I don’t know if it’s because it’s soft shell or hard shell, but sometimes it has a different flavor — a sweeter flavor. 

Then you have the sauce and the dressing. 

The third component is whether or not there’s lettuce. Some places, I’m like, why are you using a giant, green leaf lettuce? I like it shaved, or a nice little piece of it to keep it in the bun. 

And last, of course, is the bun. Traditional lobster roll, it’s gotta be the split, New England style roll. And it’s gotta be butter grilled. Butter, with its salt, helps with the lobster. Some people just — I don’t know — throw it in the oven, some are stale. And you have to get the oversized bun, because realistically, if you went to the market and got those hotdog buns, they’re super small. 

Then you have to consider proportion. Standard price is probably $20 – $25. If you’re paying $29 – $30 and it’s good, it’s not going to be that good because now I’m spending an extra $8.

Castle Inn; photo credit: Melissa McKelvey

JC: Are you opposed to frozen lobster meat if it tastes good?

GP: When I worked at a hotel, I did half and half. You can get frozen fresh-shucked lobster meat, which is different from the frozen claw/knuckle meat, and it has a totally different texture and color. My issue [with frozen lobster] is that it gets stringy. So if you mix it — which is great, because you’re working on the bottom line, and you’re not really making money on a lobster roll — if you use the fresh lobster meat as the big chunks and the frozen meat to chop up small to get flavor in, then yes. It would be good.

JC: Have you set aside a special lobster fund to support your habit?

GP: I should! It’s really digging into my savings here. [She laughs.] No, I spend money on food and go out to eat because that’s what I enjoy doing. It’s more of a hobby…but people set aside money for their hobbies, like — I don’t know — golfing or something. So, yeah, I probably should start saving for it because it’s probably as expensive as golfing.

Anthony’s Seafood; photo credit: Melissa McKelvey

JC: Okay, so currently what are your top favorite lobster rolls?

GP: The top two are Dune Brothers and Matunuck Oyster Bar, for sure. Newport Lobster Shack is very good — also one of the top. I know Benjamin’s (in Newport) is good because I ate there last year, probably at the end of the season, and that’s the one I was dreaming about in January. And Quito’s was good. That one’s more expensive, though. It’s in Bristol. We’d always overlooked that because it’s at the end of the bike path, a shack on the water. That was one of the first weeks of outdoor dining. We waited for 45 minutes for a takeout lobster roll. 

To read the full reports, visit @rhodyrolls401 and give her a follow.

Pro Tip: There’s a hashtag on IG: #iratelobsterrolls, started by Rhode Island food enthusiast Melissa McKelvey, who also reviews lobster rolls in New England. I asked for her top five, and she said (with the caveat she hasn’t tried Matunuck Oyster Bar or Blount’s Clam Shack): 1. Dune Brothers Seafood; 2. Boat House in Tiverton; 3. Anthony’s Seafood; 4. The Lobster Bar; 5. Castle Hill Inn.

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