A heaven-sent appetizer is endowed with a creation story, one that bestows a halo of mystique on an otherwise terrestrial snack. The first trope is the waste-not-want-not parable, also known as highly intelligent design, in which a creative chef finds a calling for a forsaken ingredient that might otherwise have been cast out. Such inspiration begat the Buffalo wing.
The second is the fabled Reese's Fate, or accidental miracle, in which something prized, like a dessert or premium mozzarella, co-mingles in seemingly unholy union with something else, like peanut butter or batter, and damn if the chef is just going to throw that away. It was in St. Louis in the 1950s when a possessed assistant cook accidentally put ravioli in a pot of frying oil, and the rest is delicious history.
Take one or a combination of those models and you have your onion rings, fried zucchini, fried mushrooms, sweet potato fries, risotto balls, and mac-and-cheese bites; however, the most divine is the fried cheese curd. Foreign to most Connecticans, fried cheese curds are as common in Wisconsin as fried clams in Misquamicut. Here, they can only be found on the menus of select Dairy Queen locations (not at the one in New Haven) and your finer Hooters establishments.
Those in the know order their fried cheese curds off-menu at Knuckleheads, a bar in Wallingford. Curds are the semi-solid blobs that form during the first part of cheesemaking, floating in liquid whey, before they have been pressed into a block and allowed to age. When the curds are battered and deep fried, they become the poor man's fried mozzarella sticks. Not that a poor man would pay what they charge at Knuckleheads ($8.99), but patrons are also paying to dine in an establishment with over 12 different dip options for their appetizers. Just try to find that in Wisconsin...or at Hooters.
A delicious dip like Knuckleheads' teriyaki/garlic/peanut or Acapulco gold (horseradish/honey) covers a multitude of sins; for example, their pickle chips seem more Shake-N-Bake than batter fried, and the ridge cuts aren't doing the pickles any favors. By contrast, the ridges work brilliantly on Knuckleheads' sweet potato fries, which promotes a crunchy texture and caramelized flavor.
The fried pickle, whether in chip or spear form, is perhaps the perfect appetizer. It is a close third behind onion rings and french fries for the chepth of its basic ingredient. It is battered and deep fried, which, as with the humble onion, greatly increases its value. The fried pickle lends itself to imaginative creation stories: Picture a Rube-Goldberg-like kitchen disaster on the Lower East Side amidst sputtering Yiddish accents. (Actually, the fried pickle may have been invented on purpose by a chef called "Fatman" in Arkansas, which is just as quaint).
Fried pickle questers should compare variations at the different Archie Moore's locations, which include New Haven, Milford, Derby, and Wallingford. Even if you don't think Archie Moore's has the best fried pickle in Connecticut (cough...Antonio's of Simsbury...cough), they do have plenty for appetizer aficionados to like. The Milford location boasts a fried artichoke "lightly coated in a spicy Buffalo batter, served in a blue cheese dressing." The Derby location has the artichoke, but not the pickles, while the Wallingford location does the artichoke plus fried pickle spears. Fried pickle spears are also on the menu at Prime 16 on Temple Street, where they also serve "rings of fire" — beer-battered jalapeno slices. The Dive Bar in West Haven serves the pickle in chip form but specializes in beachside/tropical fare like fried plantains, mahi bites and conch fritters. Deanna, the bartender describes the conch fritter as "almost like a croquette. It has a stuffing in it; then they deep fry it."
At conch fritters, some appetizer purists might balk. While frittering an onion or some stray veggie bits to feed your starving family in Mumbai seems like divine inspiration (try the mixed vegetable pakora at the Zaroka Bar and Restaurant on York Street), shredding a tasty shellfish just to fry it up seems downright devilish. To one-up that paragon of excess, the New Haven and Westbrook locations of Lenny & Joe's Fish Tale boast fried Maine lobster. "It's fried in our special breading recipe, served with lemon and cocktail sauce," says manager J.J.
Fried Maine lobster? Can I get some deep fried Filet Mignon with that? The fried clams and oysters seem more sensible, but the fact that you can order fresh fried zucchini for a song just might get Lenny and Joe past a well-fattened St. Peter into appetizer heaven some day.
Point being, it takes a plausible accident to forgive taking an already infallible food item and dipping it into the deep frier. Our consciences need some of that rationale when we experience the sinful-seeming oral-gasm of our first fried ravioli. At S'Wings on Crown Street, you can start your meal with the fried ravioli and end it with a deep fried Twinkie. Only actual Twinkies don't exist any more, so S'Wings uses "something similar, wrapped in a tortilla and deep fried," according to Carlos, the manager, who adds, "people love it." Yeah, just like Elvis loved deep fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches, which are still served at Graceland today.
Such excess is typical of the fried ravioli crowd, which really seems to know how to take indulgences to the next level. For instance, at Marco Polo Pizzeria on Crown Street, you can have your french fries with bacon, melted cheddar and mozzarella, served with ranch dressing.
What even the finest establishments are increasingly discovering is that the beauty and simplicity of a single ingredient, a gift bestowed by nature, can be improved upon by frying the bejesus out of it. At Michael's Downtown on Court Street, you can get fried cheese of the day — either mozzarella, provolone or cheddar . But then, nothing is simpler or closer to nature than the mushroom. A fried mushroom comes with a particular caveat, though. The painful and near-universal experience of co-mingling the skin on the roof of your mouth with molten mozzarella is nothing compared to the sulphurous armageddon of a prematurely chomped mushroom exploding out of its batter shell and into your mouth. There's something about patience and appetizers that just don't mix...something to do with hunger. So whether you're ordering your fried mushrooms at Pizza by Romanos on Ferry Street, Yorkside on York, or Naples in Guilford, pray for the strength to wait for good things. And if you lack the self-discipline, order delivery whenever possible so that those mushrooms have time to cool off.
Otherwise, let the knight on a quest for heavenly appetizers be strengthened by the words found in Ecclesiastes 2:1-11: "Come now, I will test you with pleasure. So enjoy yourself."
Great Places For Fried Food Around New Haven
188 ½ Willow St., New Haven, (203) 773-9870; 15 Factory Lane, Milford, (203) 876-5088; 39 N. Main St., Wallingford, (203) 265-7100; 17 Elizabeth St., Derby, (203) 732-3255, archiemoores.com.
They serve fried artichoke hearts, wings, calamari and mozzarella. Be sure to ask about the artichoke hearts and fried wings, as they are not specified on the New Haven menu.
172 York St., New Haven, (203) 789-8684/8718, bkkgardenct.com.
On the menu: Golden Bag, Cupid Wings and Thai Wings. As if ordering dessert doesn't already make you feel a teensy bit guilty…have it fried. So make sure you ask about their fried ice cream.
Black Bear Saloon
124 Temple St., New Haven, (203) 562-2327, blackbearnh.com.
Their fried menu features buffalo calamari and coconut shrimp, along with some unconventional fried things like pickles and mac & cheese bites.
974 State St., New Haven, (203) 624-5991, jpdempseynewhaven.com.
Order from a glorious list of fried goodies, including fried mozzarella & tomatoes, mozzarella fritta, fried calamari, especial mozzarella de pesto, buffalo style calamari (fried or not fried? that is the question), beer-battered chicken tenders and beer-battered veggie platter.
Lenny & Joe's Fish Tale
86 Boston Post Road, Westbrook, (860) 669-0767; 1301 Boston Post Road, Madison, (203) 245-7289; 501 Long Wharf Drive, New Haven, (203) 691-6619, ljfishtale.com.
Zucchini, onion rings, lobster, shrimp and calamari come recommended.
130 Court St., New Haven, (203) 507-2677, michaelsdowntown.com.
Try their fried calamari, shrimp or cheese of the day.
Pizza By Romano's
152 Ferry St., New Haven, (203) 789-1118, pizzabyromanos.com.
1400 Whalley Ave., New Haven, (203) 389-9894, spoonersnewhaven.com.
Spooner's fried file: scallops, shrimp, calamari, mozzarella, onion rings and clam strips.
The Kitchen Table
128 Crown St., New Haven, (203) 787-5422, thekitchentablenewhaven.com.
In the mood for some fried risotto balls? Kitchen Table's got you covered.
288 York St., New Haven, (203) 787-7471, yorksidepizza.com
Chow down on some fried zucchini, mozzarella and buffalo wings.
Zaroka Bar & Restauarant
148 York St., New Haven, (203) 776-8644, zaroka.com.
It's all about the mixed vegetable pakora, seasonal vegetables soused in a lightly spiced batter and tossed on the fryer till they're crispy and brown.
Fried pickles: a stroke of divine inspiration.