Utica loves its chicken riggies, but would it taste good as a potato chip?

Mar 24, 2014

Syracuse has salt potatoes, Rochester has the garbage plate and Buffalo has the chicken wing. And for the Mohawk Valley, the iconic food has to be chicken riggies. The central New York pasta dish has become so popular it commands its own festival. Now, one Utica resident has entered the unique flavor of peppers, chicken, rigatoni and pink tomato sauce into a national contest.

Recently, snack foods like potato chips have strayed from traditional flavors like barbeque and sour cream and onion to varieties like dill pickle and jalapeno. But does a chicken riggies flavored potato chip sound good?

Utica resident Mark Needham thinks it would. That's why the musician and author has entered "Utica's Chicken Riggies" in the nationwide Lay's Potato Chip "Do Us a Flavor" contest.

"I thought of a Jamaican flavored one, but then I'm like, wait a second; Utica!" Needham said. "You know, I started thinking that not only is chicken riggies an incredible flavor, and if that could translate to a chip it could taste great. But on top of that, positive attention for the city."

Lays is offering a grand prize of $1 million to help find a new specialty flavor for its potato chip line. Last year, cheesy garlic bread was selected as the winner, beating out both Sriracha and chicken and waffles flavored chips.

Chicken riggies are prepared at Babe's in North Utica.
Credit Gino Geruntino / WRVO

Needham has been eating and making riggies since moving to Utica as a kid. Since then, his love for the dish has grown, and he strives to hit the perfect combination of spiciness and creaminess... just like restaurants and home cooks all over central New York have been doing for decades.

It's Friday morning and the lunch crowd has yet to stop by Babe's Macaroni Bar and Grill, on Utica's north side.

Babe's has been serving up riggies for more than 20 years, which owner Sam Tornatore says is created from two signature sauces; a chunky tomato sauce they call California sauce and a creamy Alfredo made with imported peccorino romano cheese.

"When I got up here, the hometown Italian restaurants, which there were many more then than there are today, all had their version of chicken riggies," Tornatore said. "And when we were ready to open up Babe's Macaroni Grill and Bar, we knew we had to have a chicken riggie to compete with the competitors."

Tornatore says riggies are one of the restaurant's best sellers year after year.

Joanne Gerace poses with a cookbook written by Sal Amico, who served as a cook for Richie Scamardo and Bobby Hazelton.
Credit Gino Geruntino / WRVO

The city's love affair with the spicy pasta dish goes back about 40 years to Clinton, where two restaurateurs, Richie Scamardo and Bobby Hazelton, apparently first developed the recipe.

"They were always trying to come up with good ideas, and they started the chicken riggie," says Joanne Gerace, the owner of Tiny's Grill, a Utica mainstay. "A lot of people have made claims to it, but they're the original ones,"

She says although the main ingredients might be consistent, there is no right way to make the dish.

"It's an absolutely homemade dish, that you can't say 'well, you've got to have one cup of sugar, and two cups of flour and a tablespoon...'" Gerace said. "No, it's all by eye, it's by taste, it's by look, it's by smell, it's by feel. And that's how you make a dish like that."

While everyone has their own theory on how to make riggies or who came up with the dish, it doesn't matter to Mark Needham. What's important is that riggies mean Utica, and now Utica is rallying behind riggies... as a potato chip. Hundreds have already voted online for the flavor.

"We're small potatoes in the nation and the world, but look how excited we got about this," Needham said. "It's something that we can all relate to, it's something that kind of combines us together as a city, and look what we did with it. It's already become a huge thing, so imagine all of the other things we could do."

Submissions for the Lays contest will be accepted until April 5. A panel will then select four finalists. Those flavors will begin selling nationwide in July and the public will select the winner.

You can see all of Needham's submissions and vote for your favorite flavors here.