Watch how to make Chicken Riggies. Click on the Plate Night video above.

Ask anybody who knows anything about Upstate New York and they’ll tell you the struggling city of Utica is best known for great food.

Sure, we’ve had our decades of decline but through it all, this surprisingly diverse city of 55,000 people has been able to maintain a quality of ethnic foods that quietly rivals most of its bigger sister cities.  While the city has a broad array of unique cultural flavors, nothing stands out more than its Italian cuisine.

The word (Utica) has become synonymous with delicious authentic Italian cuisine

“There’s something about the name Utica when talking about food,” said Charlie Digristina, owner of Charlie’s Pizza restaurants.  “The word has become synonymous with delicious authentic Italian cuisine and outside the area, it’s a big bonus if you feature a chef from Utica at your restaurant.”  That’s exactly why when Digristina decided to open a restaurant in Syracuse he called it Utica Pizza Company.

“I feature our Utica style dishes which come from family recipes passed down over the years,” he said. “Now, people can get that Utica Italian food here.”

One of those ‘Utica Style’ dishes on his menu and the menus of almost every Italian restaurant in the Utica area is Chicken Riggies.  This dish has garnered some national attention over the years on the Food Network, Rachel Ray, and several magazines and it’s beginning to show up on menus across the country in cities like Orlando, Myrtle Beach and even Boston.

Chicken Riggies is a fairly simple dish that features rigatoni pasta and cubes of chicken breast tossed in a spicy marinara pink sauce.

“This is not your typical pink sauce,” said chef Joe Morelle who cooked at several Utica area restaurants and is credited with making Utica Greens (Greens Morelle) famous.  “While today, everybody has their own variation of the dish, the original recipe and the one I cook with doesn’t have any cream in it.  It’s wine, marinara and grated cheese,” he said.


Everything Famous Has to Start Somewhere

Digging in to find the origin of the Chicken Riggies dish is not as easy as it seems.  There are conflicting stories when it comes to giving credit where credit is due and many people take their version of the story very seriously.

Let’s start with what everybody seems to agree on.  The dish was created in the late 1970’s or early 1980’s and the original recipe did not include cream.  Any part of the story after that is most likely going to be met with conflicting views, each of which begins with, ‘Trust me, this is the real story of Chicken Riggies.’

The most popular version (and quite possibly the most plausible) begins at the Clinton House of Clinton, NY in the late 1970’s.  The Clinton House was a popular Italian restaurant owned by Chef Richie Scamardo with Chef Bobby Hazleton.

Michael Geno, currently the head chef at Aqua Vino, a Utica restaurant owned by former NHL goalie and Comets owner Rob Esche, says “I know where it came from because I was there.”

Geno says it does date back to the Clinton House with Scamardo.  “This was about 1979,” he said. “The doctors, lawyers and union guys would come in on Monday nights to play cards and we would make them the ‘riggie dish’ with chicken, tomatoes and cherry peppers.  When they came back the next week, they wanted the same thing we made them the week before.  And there you have it - the birth of Chicken Riggies,” said Geno.

Another player from that era, Mike Schulz, was washing dishes at the Clinton House back in the early to mid 1980’s and he says he worked with Bobby Hazleton in the kitchen when he used to make a dish like Chicken Riggies for the dish washers and kitchen help.

“After a few months I worked my way onto the line with Bobby and shortly thereafter, we branched out to Bobby’s new place on Bleecker (The Fisherman’s Wharf).  I worked there for a few years and Bobby would make the riggies,” said Schulz, who would later take the head chef job at the newly opened Chesterfield Restaurant.  “After about six months of cooking the same old recipes at the Chesterfield, I decided to add new dishes like Chicken Riggies to the menu and the rest is history,” he said.

While Schulz did not claim he invented the dish, he did say he was the one who made it famous by putting it on the menu back in 1989.

“I guess I’m the one who put it on the map,” said Schulz.

Who Really had It on their Menu First?

Jeff Daniels of the Valley View Restaurant in Utica gives credit to his dad, Jeff Daniels Sr..

“We had a tenderloin tips dish at Cafe Daniele’s back in 1986 and I wanted a chicken version of that which was just like the Chicken Riggies recipe we know today and we called it Chicken Caprice,” said Daniels.  “One night, Joe Talerico of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union came in and wanted pasta with something that was healthy, so, my father put Chicken Caprice over the rigatoni pasta and that’s how we believe the dish was started,” he said.

Chef Joe Morelle has memory of the dish that dates back earlier.

Chef Joe Morelle has memory of the dish that dates back earlier.

“I remember Chicken Riggies on the menu at Anthony’s on Rutger Street before then,” said Morelle.  “Dick Vatalero worked there from 1984 until 1986 and while I’m not saying he created the dish, I know he served it in ’84.”  Vatalero, who is now 78, actually remembers the guy who gave the dish it’s name, according to Morelle.

“Dick said that he didn’t know what to call the dish and the other chef there, Joey Pristera was the one who came up with the name.  He said there’s chicken in it and rigatoni pasta…so let’s call it Chicken Riggies,” he said.

Every Story Teller has a Beginning

No matter who created the recipe, the names included in each of these versions all played a role in making Chicken Riggies the famous dish it is today.  The fact is, however, there might never have been a Chicken Riggies if not for the one man who seemed to give most (if not all) of the names who make up the ‘riggies’ story their start.

“All of these names mentioned got their start at Grimaldi’s on Bleecker Street with Fred

It’s really a simple dish,” Schulz said.  “The chicken, peppers, wine, marinara and cheese; it’s that easy.

Grimaldi Sr.,” said Morelle.  “I’m not saying Chicken Riggies came out of that restaurant, but I’m pretty sure whoever really made that first dish came up into the business through Grimaldi’s.”

Grimaldi’s Restaurant on Bleecker Street closed in 2012 after 69 years in the same Bleecker Street location.  The Grimaldi family, which opened it in 1943, still operates the very successful Grimaldi’s Luna Park restaurant in East Syracuse.

“I agree with Joe on that.  We all got our start at Grimaldi’s,” said Jeff Daniels. “Some of the best chefs in the world came out of there,” he said.

Watch Mike Schulz explain how Chicken Riggies became famous at the Chesterfield.

Speaking of Versions - Now, Everybody Has One

No matter which version of the story you favor, one element of the Chicken Riggies saga is indisputable. Only the Chesterfield can boast that the dish has been on their menu continuously since it was first added some 26 years ago.  Chesterfield still remains in their original location at 1713 Bleecker Street and they still serve the dish using the same recipe Mike Schulz started with back in 1989.

“It’s really a simple dish,” Schulz said.  “The chicken, peppers, wine, marinara and cheese; it’s that easy.”

Today, restaurants all over the area serve up their version of the Chicken Riggies and there's even an annual Chicken Riggies festival that's held annually in the city.  Some cooks stray from the original recipe and add heavy cream while others completely change it up by adding shrimp, steak and other base ingredients.  Either way, it’s a dish that is a staple at Utica area restaurants and one that is quickly growing in popularity outside the city and beyond.

The above episode of Plate Night and the interview with Mike Schulz were taped in March and April of 2013.  The footage was lost and then recently discovered.  Additional interviews were conducted over the last 30 days to complete this story.