In partnership with FIAT USA we asked photographer and globe trotting food writer Bonjwing Lee (also creator of the restaurant travel blog The Ulterior Epicure) to book his ideal summer road trip. With only a brand-new FIAT 500X Crossover and the open road for inspiration, Lee chose to drive through scenic New England. In this four-part photo travelogue, we follow him as he stops at picturesque points along the region’s rocky coastline, pauses at historical landmarks, and meets up with friends along the way to do what he does best: eat.
I met the FIAT 500X in New York City, and immediately plugged "Frank Pepe Pizzeria" in New Haven into the navigation system, and after clearing bumper-to-bumper traffic in the city, hopped on the highway towards Connecticut. Located on a quiet, neighborhood street, Frank Pepe is a New Haven institution. Founded in 1925, the pizzeria offers an East Coast charm that, to a Midwesterner, seemed a bit gruff at first.
But as soon as the waitress called me "sweethot" and flashed a big smile, I knew everything was alright. Frank Pepe is famous for its thin-crust "apizzas." I ordered the two most popular ones – the "Fresh Clam" pizza and the "Original Tomato Pie" (I added mozzarella to it). Both were great, but I especially loved the white (no sauce, cheese only) clam pizza.
Leaving New Haven, I headed east to Providence, Rhode Island, and arrived to an afternoon pick-me-up at White Electric, a coffee shop with an indie-rock vibe.
The name of James Mark's restaurant North, traced in lower-case cursive, glows neon blue in the front window. Half Chinese, Mark's cooking is noticeably Asian: he offers a version of "Dan Dan noodles" which includes squid and mutton. There were also tender slices of seared beef heart, served with kimchi. I especially loved his "Tiny Ham Biscuits," which weren't Asian at all, but with a hearty kick of mustard, they were terrific.
The next day, chef Ben Sukle and his wife Heidi offered to take me on a grazing tour of southern Rhode Island. So, we all jumped in the FIAT 500X and headed south from Providence to Matunuck Oyster Bar, where we picked up lunch to-go.
Just down the road from the restaurant are the sandy dunes of East Matunuck State Beach, where we opened the back hatch and shared lobster rolls, fried clam rolls, and a delicious fried oyster po'boy with pickles under a bright, blue sky.
On the way down to Newport, we stopped at Beavertail State Park to hear the crash of the surf against the rocks.
In Newport, the Sukles and I warmed up over steaming bowls of clam chowder on the pier patio of The Black Pearl, a local favorite.
Before heading back north to Providence, we stopped at Flo’s Clam Shack for one last snack: fried scallops, clam "cakes" (what I identified as fritters), and "stuffies," which are quahog clam filled with a breaded seafood stuffing.
In the VFW in Cranston, Rhode Island is Mike’s Kitchen. As Sukle described it, it’s like a permanent "pop-up" restaurant, sharing the building with the local VFW Post 2396. The food is Italian-American, heavy on the red sauce. We ordered cold "snail salad" (whelk, to be more accurate); a big, fat stuffed artichoke; and veal Parmesan sandwich. But, it was the giant blocks of baked polenta for which Sukle brought me here. They were rich with cheese and smothered in the restaurant’s wonderful tomato sauce. They were worth the trek.
Next up: Al Forno, a very popular restaurant in Providence known for its grilled pizzas. We ordered a fried calamari grilled pizza to share, and finished our day of grazing with a warm rhubarb crisp with a shortbread top.
I ended a long day of driving and eating at the Magdalenae Room, a craft cocktail bar on the ground floor of The Dean Hotel, where I was staying.
My last day in Providence was spent walking around the city, hopping from coffee shop to coffee shop. In the morning, I started with a strong shot of espresso at Bolt, a third wave coffee bar in the lobby of my hotel.
In the afternoon, I walked up Wickenden Street, which is full of small boutiques and artisan shops, like Three Wheel Studio, where ceramicist Dwo Wen Chen makes the plates that Sukle uses in his restaurant. At the top of Wickenden is The Shop, a bright, new coffee shop, where I paused for an afternoon cup of coffee with chef James Mark of North.
My last dinner in Providence was at Ben and Heidi Sukle’s counter-seating restaurant, Birch. A college friend drove from Connecticut to join me for a delicious tasting menu, which included a delicate tail of local scup with turnips and squid, and a ridiculously delicious bowl of asparagus with hop shoots, kelp, and crispy rice.
Before leaving, I asked Sukle, "Why is your restaurant named Birch?" He pulled out a frosty can of birch beer, a popular drink in central Pennsylvania, where he and Heidi grew up. He poured half for me and half for himself and toasted to the end of a perfect, three-day stay in Rhode Island.