All that has changed. Renamed the Renaissance City, Providence has been reborn.
Downtown was revived by Buddy Cianci, the frequently indicted and much revered mayor of Providence, who convinced Amtrak to relocate so he could create a park in the center of the city. He tore up the streets that had paved over the Providence, Woonasquatucket, and Moshassuk Rivers and created a Venice-like system of canals that are used today by WaterFire (http://www.waterfire.org/), the summer festival that transforms the center of the city into a street fair of music, food, and pyrotechnics.
With RISD (the Rhode Island School of Design), its newly expanded Museum of Art, Trinity Rep, and Brown University, the city offers more art per square foot than almost any other city, save maybe San Francisco. Increasingly visitors to Southern New England are discovering Rhode Island and Providence in particular because of its manageable size and creature comforts.
If you're hungry, Providence will make you very happy.
You can enjoy uniquely Rhode Island foods by stopping at a neighborhood shop like Sal's Bakery (1288 Chalkstone Boulevard, Providence, 401/331-5349) and picking up a spinach pie or a pizza strip. They're eaten cold although the pizza strips,which used to be a humble affair of baked pizza dough topped with spicy tomato sauce, are now available with thin slices of potato, cheese, or basil.
Unless you're a vegan, you have to try a New York Style hot dog, which is--notwithstanding the name-- only found in Rhode Island. A generous helping of braised beef sits on top of a hot dog, with a smear of mustard and a generous dusting of raw onions and celery salt. Don't drive by The Original New York System (424 Smith Street, Providence, 401/331-5349) without running in for a plate of hot dogs and a glass of ice cold coffee milk, another Rhode Island original.
Take an afternoon walk around DePasquale Plaza in Federal Hill, Providence's Little Italy, and enjoy local baked treats like zeppoles and sfogliatelle with a good espresso at Palmieri's Bakery Cafe (64 DePasquale Plaza, Providence, 401/861-2253) or go around the corner and stop at elegant, romantic Pastiche (92 Spruce Street, Providence, 401/861-5190) for a pot of tea and a slice of chocolate layer cake.
While you're walking around Federal Hill, take a minute to join the crowds at Venda Ravioli (265 Atwells Avenue, Providence, 401/421-9105) where the display cases are packed full with olives, cheeses, cured meats, ready-made Italian deli favorites like stuffed peppers and snail salad, homemade pastas, freshly baked breads, gelato, and imported chocolates.
Among the restaurants, there are old favorites for those who know the city. Pot Au Feu (44 Custom House, Providence, 401/273-8953) and Al Forno (577 South Main Street, Providence, 401/273-9760) show up in all the tourist-guides because they sparked a change in the way Rhode Islanders ate. They are worth a visit but there are a half dozen others that should be at the top of your list the next time you're passing through Southern New England.
In fact, I'll hazard a guess that once you've eaten in Providence, you'll think twice about making reservations in Boston. The food is as good or better. The prices competitive or cheaper, and it's a lot easier getting around and parking in Providence than in Boston.
The locavore movement has found its epicenter in Providence in the cooking of Brian Kingsford (Bacaro), Matt and Kate Jennings (Farmstead and La Laiterie), Ed Reposa (Thee "Red" Fez), Matt Gennuso (Chez Pascal and Hewtin's Hot Dog Cart), Bruce Tillinghast and Beau Vestal (New Rivers), Derek Wagner (Nick's on Broadway), and Joe Hafner (Gracie's), all of whom work with local farmers to create product for their restaurants.
When you walk inside Nick's, you're met with a whirlwind of energy emanating from the open kitchen. Chef-owner, Derek Wagner orchestrates the movements of his staff in a narrow alley of a kitchen as he calls out the orders, keeps the mise en place well-stocked, and checks every dish. What attention to detail!
Nick's is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and Derek is in front of his stove for all three meals. For Derek, like his fellow chefs in Providence, cooking is about passion and heart. In this close-knit community of chefs, they think, sleep, and talk about food 24-hours a day. They spend their free time searching out new purveyors. They hang out with one another and pitch in if anyone gets jammed up.
At Nick's the food is local as much as it can be, given New England seasonal realities. His menu lists the local farmers, growers and producers who supply the restaurant. His cooking style is short order but the dishes are long on flavor, well-made, delicious, and smart.
For breakfast you can have a tofu scramble, bacon and eggs, or a breakfast sandwich. But you can also have blue cheese bread pudding topped with over-easy eggs and Hollandaise or slow-cooked braised beef with a poached egg on top of a grilled round of sour dough bread. Pastas, sandwiches, soups, salads, tofu, and grilled fish fill out the lunch menu, with an emphasis on keeping prices well under $10.00 for the majority of the dishes. Dinner features locally caught seafood--cod, clams, shrimp, yellow-fin tuna, and sea scallops--as well as chicken and steaks and New England desserts like warm blueberry bread pudding or cherry cobbler with creme fraiche-cherry ice cream.
Thee "Red" Fez (49 Peck Street, Providence, 401/272-1212)
The Red Fez is where Providence chefs go after their own restaurants close, so you know the food is good and affordable. Ed Reposa and Sara Kilguss serve up imaginative cocktails like their Gentleman's Manhattan with ginger syrup. They feature fun-comfort food like Mac + Cheese with chorizo, homemade kimchi with tofu and rice, grilled chicken wings with "eleventeen" spices, grilled cheese with bacon and tomatoes, hummus and grilled pita, pulled pork sandwiches, and the not-to-be-missed French-Canadian poutine made not with a biscuit and lumpy gray sauce but with chorizo gravy, fries and bits of fried Mexican cheese.
If you haven't died-and-gone-to-heaven after you've eaten your fill, head to the upstairs-bar and listen to the music, have another drink--maybe a Pasilla, Queen of the Desert, a spicy blackberry and pasilla pepper margarita--and just hang out.
Farmstead and La Laiterie (184-188 Wayland Avenue, Providence, 401/274-7177)
At Farmstead, a retail store and small restaurant, the cheeses come from all over the world and, in Providence, this is the place to buy quality cheeses.
Chefs and co-owners, Matt and Kate Jennings like to tell people that when they met they fell in love over stinky cheese and cured meats. Trained as a pastry chef, Kate bakes the homemade cakes, muffins, and dessert breads sold at the store. Matt's the cheese monger and charcutier. If you love cured meats, Matt's your man. He selects the best he can find and makes some himself, like a mortadella that is deliciously light and flavorful, a lamb's neck terrine filled with fat pieces of savory meat, and a smoked-brined bacon he uses to make their signature BLT.
La Laiterie is attached to the cheese store and serves a dinner menu that draws freely from French, Italian, Spanish, and New England cuisines. Hanger steak gets a side of new potatoes and salsa verde. Grilled branzini shares the plate with preserved lemon and toasted quinoa. Local seafood--squid and mussels--is served in a spicy escabeche sauce. If hamburger is your food-of-choice, you've hit the jackpot with La Laiterie's 1/2 pound burger with your choice of Shelbourne 3 year old cheddar, Gorgonzola piccante, or tarentaise. The restaurant has a relaxed atmosphere. Matt and Kate encourage their patrons to linger, sampling wines, having dessert and coffees or a cheese plate.
New Rivers (7 Steeple Street, Providence, 401/751-0350)
Located on the eastern edge of downtown, New Rivers has championed fine dining in an intimate, romantic setting since 1990. Chef-owner, Bruce Tillinghast has always based his menu on local, seasonal food, with an emphasis on French and regional Italian cooking. His current chef, Beau Vestal, like his friend Matt Jennings with whom he goes mushroom foraging, loves cured meats, so he added an extensive "Charcuterie & Offal" menu that includes heart, pork cheeks, lardo, as well as pork belly, garlic and pistachio sausage, chicken livers, and pork confit torchon. With a nod to Southern New England traditions, New Rivers offers corn bisque with sauteed fish, a full clambake albeit without the sand and smoke, and one of the best lobster rolls in the area. Usually lobster rolls are made with claw and knuckle meat. At New Rivers your lobster roll will be made up entirely of tail meat, served on a grilled brioche with Cole slaw made with celeriac, corn, Italian parsley, and red cabbage. The Berkshire Pork Ribs, slow grilled with peach bbq sauce, was fall-off-the-bone delicious.
Using local ingredients to advantage, the innocently sounding Westport Salad is actually a gathering of the familiar and unexpected on a plate that balances fall greens like arugula and red leaf lettuce with slices of Asian pears, two kinds of French radishes, locally grown Mexican cucumbers, thin slices of red turnip, Hannahbelle Cheese, and half a dozen sliced husk cherries. Rarely has a salad been so refreshing and satisfying.
Besides a full bar and a generous wine listing, New Rivers also has an amazing dessert menu with a lemon tartlet topped with a crown of fresh berries and mint leaves, warm apple cake with buttermilk spice ice cream (my favorite!), and perfectly constructed ice creams like huckleberry or praline.
Gracie's (194 Washington Street, Providence, 401/272-7811)
Located downtown across the street from the world-famous Trinity Repertory Theater and a block away from a Providence favorite, Local 121 (121 Washington Street, Providence, 401/274-2121), Gracie's is an easy place to like. With floor to ceiling windows facing Washington Street and stars decorating the interior, Gracie's invites you inside to enjoy a drink and snacks at the bar or into the intimate dining room for dinner and quiet conversation.
Like his fellow Providence chefs, Joe Hafner buys locally and changes his bistro menu seasonally. There are classic dishes like the Gorgonzola gnocchi that were little puffs of flavor that dissolve on the tongue, Hudson Valley Foie Gras served on brioche with pumpkin pie custard and cranberry gastrique--it was almost Thanksgiving after all--or hanger steak with collard greens. And then there are personal dishes like the Rigatoni Campano, made from co-0wner Ellen Gracyalny's grandmother's recipe, the pasta sweetened with a tomato and ricotta salata sauce, a spicy Italian sausage filling out the flavors. While chef Hafner says, "Quality goes hand in hand with local," he admits that's a balancing act. He won't keep lamb off the menu because it comes from Colorado. And if there are better scallops in Canada's George's Bank or salmon from Scotland, that's what he'll serve. But if the local product costs a bit more, he'll pay it. Buying from local purveyors and staying in "harmony with the season" are key to his inspiration.
Bacaro (262 South Water Street, Providence, 401/751-3700)
When chef-owner Brian Kingsford was 15, he got a job at Al Forno, the Italian restaurant that sparked Providence's food renaissance. To get the job he had to lie. He said he was 18 and knew how to cook. Neither was true. But seven years later, having learned the craft and proven himself, he became the head chef. With his partner, Jennifer Matta, he opened Bacaro in 2007, with a bar and salumeria downstairs and a full-service restaurant upstairs in the large loft-like space.
The huge menu takes its inspiration from the wine bars or enotecas of Venice. Replacing the chalk boards used in Europe, he took a page from Japanese sushi bars. When you order from the tapas (cicchetti) menu, you use a sushi-style sheet, marking what you want. The choices are encyclopedic, covering fish, fowl, meat, and virtually every edible plant found on an Italian menu. It's easy to fill up on the tapas menu when you have your choice of crispy pork belly, figs with honey, stuffed squash blossoms, fried smelts, anchovy sandwiches, roasted peppers, pate, braised cipollini onions, baccala and polenta crostini, and mini-panini with a selection of cheeses and meats.
The oyster and salumeria menus use the same mark-up menu. There are raw oysters from Long Island, Rhode Island, and Prince Edward Island and you can order oyster comfort food, like po-boy sliders and gratins of oysters in several flavors.
As part of his education, chef Kingsford traveled widely in Italy. The question that haunted him was, "Why do dishes I know how to make taste better in Italy?" The answer, he decided, was because of the olive oils, specific to each dish, town, and region. As a result, he uses regional olive oils for specific dishes.
On the main menu there are grilled pizzas in the Al Forno style, salads with a Mediterranean flair like the squid and octopus salad or a buffalo mozzarella and prosciutto salad but also combinations of local beets with Gorgonzola and a salad of local tomatoes and sweet corn. Pasta dishes like the Pasta Con i Funghi or the Pappardelle with Chantrelle Mushrooms & Sweet Corn are prepared with homemade pasta and sauced luxuriously with farm fresh ingredients. The seafood comes from local waters and arrives variously butter-poached, pan-seared, or braised. If you are a meat eater, you'll have to come back several times to satisfy your love of duck confit, spareribs, pan-roasted or crispy chicken, and wood-grilled beef or pork tenderloin. One dish in particular stood out, the Kurobuta pork chop. Of course the meat was tender and juicy, but the sweet flavors of the deliciously fatty chop were accentuated by the caramelized red peppers with their vinegar finish.
A word of advice, go with a large group so you can taste as many of the dishes as possible, so you can explore the extensive menu. Definitely leave room for dessert. There are perfect exemplars of regional desserts like the crostata with vanilla Creme Anglaise, topped with a seasonal fruit, which one evening was fresh figs. Chef Kingsford is a man with a sense of humor and that's reflected in his interpretation of a Chocolate Almond Joy or in the deconstructed Root Beer Float, which looks like a cake but tastes like the root beer float of your childhood.