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In Rhode Island, family-style chicken packs the house

The Bocce Club was the first restaurant in Greater Woonsocket to offer the area's traditional all-you-can-eat dinners. The Bocce Club was the first restaurant in Greater Woonsocket to offer the area's traditional all-you-can-eat dinners. (TOM HERDE/GLOBE STAFF)

NASONVILLE, R.I. -- A flashlight-wielding security guard in a fluorescent orange vest beams our car to the farthest corner of the parking lot. We get out and join the mass of people undulating toward a door ignominiously marked "MAIN ENTRANCE." Inside the noise is deafening.

Is it a rock concert? A political rally? A tryout for "American Idol"?

No, it's just another Saturday night at Wright's Farm Restaurant, the largest restaurant in the smallest state, and the reputed king of northern Rhode Island's signature meal, the "family-style chicken dinner."

At least a dozen restaurants in Greater Woonsocket serve this staple, at incredibly low prices. With few, and slight, variations, it consists of baked chicken, pasta with red sauce, French fries, rolls, and salad, with unlimited refills on everything.

Of course there are rules about gluttony. If you don't finish what the server brings in the first round, you may take home the leftovers. You may not take home anything from subsequent rounds.

Wright's Farm was not the first to offer family-style chicken dinners (that distinction goes to the Bocce Club), but it is certainly the biggest purveyor and the restaurant that has hewed mostly closely to the tradition of all chicken, all the time, while others have expanded their menus to match any full-service eatery.

We visited four restaurants that serve chicken family style and found that while the chicken is terrific everywhere, there are subtle differences in side dishes and atmosphere.

The secret to moist, falling-off-the-bone chicken, all the restaurateurs said, is slow cooking. Frank Galleshaw, Wright's Farm's owner, said each 2 1/2- to 3-pound chicken takes up to three hours to cook. The chickens are baked whole, then cut up to serve.

If you're into statistics, Wright's Farm has them. The restaurant can seat 1,400 people. It serves some 12,000 chicken dinners ($10.25) weekly over four days, tearing through 14,000 pounds of Perdue chicken and 11,000 pounds of potatoes, said Galleshaw, whose family has run the restaurant since 1972. Reluctantly, Wright's offers one other entree -- steak (minus the all-you-can-eat option) -- but Galleshaw said those orders account for less than 1 percent of the total business.

At Wright's the wait often exceeds the time you spend eating. Diners kill time in a 4,000-square-foot gift shop filled with bath products, home and garden accessories, toys, old-fashioned penny candy, and specialty food items, such as the restaurant's salad dressing, pasta sauce, and homemade fudge.

We thought the chicken at Wright's was the best of those we tasted, and we loved the fresh rolls. But the atmosphere was definitely institutional. Dining rooms were incredibly noisy, and rolling busing crews clearing tables added to the din.

For ambience, we liked the Village Haven, just down the street in Forestdale. We spent our 20-minute wait in a pleasant lounge with wood beams, exposed brick arches over the bar, and high shelves loaded with books and antique spools.

Rachel and David Narodowy have owned the restaurant for 30 years, and most of their seven children work there. One makes the light, unglazed cinnamon rolls for which the Village Haven is famous. Though the restaurant offers a full menu, about 80 percent of customers order chicken family style, Rachel Narodowy said.

Salad was an iceberg lettuce mix with tomatoes and carrots, lightly dressed. Chicken, shells, and crispy fries all arrived piping hot. An extra here is ice cream for dessert, in a small Hoodsie-like Styrofoam cup, included in the $9.95 tab.

The Bocce Club in Woonsocket is where it all began. The story goes that sometime in the 1920s the Pavonis first served family-style chicken dinners to friends after playing bocce at their home at 226 St. Louis Ave. A stepdaughter, Mary Tavernier, later opened a small dining room called the Bocce Club in the cellar of the family home. The Taverniers ran the ever-expanding restaurant until eight years ago, when Jose L. Gaspar bought it.

Gaspar said he still uses the Taverniers' original rotisserie ovens and family recipes for salad dressing and tomato sauce. The restaurant sells up to 1,000 chicken dinners a week, depending in large part on how many functions are going on. Its menu features Italian and Portuguese specialties, but most customers still choose family-style chicken ($7.95). This version substitutes antipasto for the green salad (or you can choose soup) and adds roasted potatoes to the pasta and fries for a carb-loading trifecta.

In the 1940s, a Woonsocket policeman opened a bar and small restaurant next to his home on Havelock Street, about a half-mile from the Bocce Club. When one of the regulars shared his recipe for baked chicken, the Embassy Restaurant was born. Room by room, the building was enlarged over the years, so that today it looks a bit like the house that Jack built.

The Embassy's claim to fame is its 20-item soup and salad bar. It included chicken rice and French onion soup, and the typical greens were complemented by pasta salad, cole slaw, and fruit.

About half the customers order family-style chicken ($8.99) from the large menu, said Douglas Harvey, who has owned the restaurant for 16 years. We especially liked the meat sauce on imported penne, which Harvey said is still made according to the original owner's recipe.

Ellen Albanese can be reached at ealbanese@globe.com.

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