Cassidy Winslow owns Cassidy’s Diner in Richfield Springs, New York, a small town near Utica. The menu has pretty standard diner fare: eggs, pancakes, and French toast for breakfast, hamburgers and sandwiches for lunch. The restaurant isn’t usually open for dinner, but in the midst of central New York’s long, dark, and harsh winters, Winslow does a Friday night dinner service where she serves up some warmth in the form of exactly one dish: chicken riggies.
What are chicken riggies?
In the central New York region comprising Utica and the small towns that surround it, a pasta dish called chicken riggies is as common as any other. It’s an option on many a restaurant menu, and although every chef has their own way of doing it, at its core, it’s the same: rigatoni tossed in a tomato sauce with chicken, peppers, and a whole lot of cheese, which renders the sauce creamy. The dish has a subtle spice and a distinct tanginess that’s difficult to put your finger on. It’s a totally warming meal that, once you have it, you want to keep having.
Like many regional dishes, it’s unclear exactly where this one originated. Local radio station WIBX did a deep dive on riggies earlier this year, and there seems to be a broad consensus that it had emerged by the 1980s. One prevailing narrative is that it was invented at a now-closed Italian restaurant in Clinton, New York called the Clinton House.
“I know where it came from, because I was there,” chef Michael Geno told WIBX before his death in 2020. “This was about 1979. 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.”
Warming up with a plate of riggies
Until a few years ago, chicken riggies had never been served at Cassidy’s Diner before. Winslow decided to try making the dish after a persistent customer encouraged her to do so. He asked whether she’d ever made it, and when she said no he came back a few days later with a recipe. Winslow, who isn’t one for recipes and usually cooks by instinct, tried out the recipe that first time as a guide and quickly discovered that what she was making was, well, delicious. From there, she and her husband, Tim Winslow, continued to make the dish, tweaking it a little bit every time to get it just right.
“It has definitely evolved over the past couple of years, but we’ve got it down, now,” says Cassidy Winslow. And thus a diner owner was thrust into the regional restaurant scene: a bona fide riggies maker.
Winslow says that whenever she does one of her special Friday night riggies dinners, she sells out within hours. And in May, Winslow was crowned riggie champion when she won the first ever Riggie Wars, held at Rock Valley Brewing Co. in nearby Little Falls, New York. Each entrant was asked to bring several trays of their riggies, which were numbered, entered into a blind taste test, and put up to a vote. An errant tray of riggies made its way into the mix at some point, leading to some confusion while tallying the results, but after some investigation, Winslow was declared the winner a few days after the event.
“We went up against some well-known restaurants, so it was cool to be the winners knowing that we went up against some places really known for their riggies,” says Winslow.
For the contest, Winslow used sausage as the meat in the pasta rather than chicken. She wanted to do something a little different than the norm. For her special Friday night dinners at the diner, she rotates between chicken riggies, shrimp riggies, and sausage riggies.
Though chicken riggies is very much a regional dish in Utica and its surrounding towns, it has made its way on to the menu elsewhere. Delmonico’s, an Italian steakhouse that originated in Syracuse, New York but now has restaurants across the state (and one in Orlando), features riggies on the menu at all of its locations. And in August, a new pizza spot in North Carolina called Pie’s On added riggies to the menu, too, delighting its patrons. Owner Ken Heaton is from upstate New York, and he told the Port City Daily that Pie’s On has been “bombarded with orders” for chicken riggies.
If you find yourself in Utica or a nearby town, you’re likely to find chicken riggies on a lot of menus. If not, this recipe is alleged to be the original, and if cooking isn’t your thing, you can order jarred riggies sauce, too.