A Providence diner — Olneyville New York System — serves up hot wieners with its own brand of dinner theater.
By Amy Traverso
Feb 03 2015
Wieners lined “up the arm.”Photo Credit : Alex Gagne
Olneyville is a little wedge of land on Providence’s west side, a former mill district with no mills left. Signs here read “Cash for Gold,” “Grow supplies,” “Rent-a-Center.” If Rhode Island’s economy has been in the doldrums, Olneyville’s looks more like clinical depression.
It’s an old neighborhood, home to successive waves of immigrants: Irish, French, Polish, Dominican. Industries and people come and go. But at the corner of Plainfield and Dike streets, one little diner with a red neon sign serves as both anchor and magnet, drawing people back to the neighborhood with dinner for five bucks and a floor show for free.
Olneyville New York System makes hot wieners. Not hot dogs. Order a hot dog and they’ll pretend they can’t hear you. The wieners (pronounced “wee-nehs”) are a mixture of pork, beef, and veal in natural casing, cut into lengths, served in a steamed bun with meat sauce, mustard, chopped onion, and celery salt. That’s called “all the way.” You order two or three or six wieners all the way, with a coffee milk and a side of fries with vinegar and salt, maybe ketchup.
Olneyville’s wieners are snappy, tangy, and richly meaty. They’re smaller than hot dogs, which means you can down three with great pleasure and only a little guilt. But the food, good as it is, is only half the draw. The rest is in the theater of the place. When customers take their stools, they expect a show, and the men working the line have been rehearsing their act for years. They work to a constant rhythm of one-liners and banter. No subject is sacred: their ethnicities, their wives, included.
Dennis Dias at the wiener station by the front window gets the most abuse. When he forgets to hold the onions on an order, manager Jim Saccoccio shuffles over. At 61, Jim has worked at Olneyville for 47 years. “Fix it, fix it!” he scolds.
“I used to like you,” Denny mutters.
“I never liked you,” Jim says. “I liked your wife and kids.”
Later, when Nick Barros—at 15 years on the line, he’s the newbie—decides that Denny’s moving too slowly, he lays in. “You need a nap?” he asks.
Jim joins in: “I’ll call your wife, tell her you’re gonna take her down the Cape for that romantic weekend. Cuddles and bubbles.”
“I’ll take her to McDonald’s,” Denny says. “Give her a treat.”
“McDonald’s?” Jim says. “Don’t spoil her. Next thing she’ll want Wendy’s.”
Collectively, they’re the Henny Youngmans of the wiener world.
The story of Olneyville goes back to the 1920s, when a family of Greek immigrants arrived in New York, land of Coney Island hot dogs and the burgeoning diner craze. Soon after, one cousin, Nick Pappas, headed up to Fall River, Massachusetts, and opened Nick’s Original Coney Island Hot Dogs. Another cousin, Augustus, opened New York System on Smith Street in Providence in 1927. A third cousin, Anthony, with his son Nicholas, worked at Nick’s Original until 1946, when they branched off to open Olneyville New York System in Providence.
All three places served the meat sauce. All three assembled the wieners “up the arm,” lining the buns up from wrist to shoulder, stuffing them with the meat, and lashing them with toppings. But in an unsubtle jab at the latecomers, the New York System shop on Smith Street was later renamed “Original New York System.” And Olneyville, today operated by fourth-generation owners Greg Stevens and his sister Stephanie Stevens Turini, went on to open two more branches, in Cranston and North Providence.
Cooking is a brutal profession. It’s rare to find a chef still working the line after 20 years. But Denny is. Sal O’Brien, who shuffles between the back kitchen and the wiener station, started in 1976. All the men limp. Nick’s back is bothering him. “Forty-six years on your feet, it’ll kill you,” Jim says. But why would they leave? At 2:00 a.m. on a Saturday night, the place is full of regulars, college kids, everyone tossing back whatever abuse Jim can hand out. “This is Rhode Island’s best,” he loves to say. “You can’t beat it with a stick.”
Olneyville New York System, 18 Plainfield St., Providence, RI. 401-621-9500; olneyvillenewyorksystem.com