Feast at top restaurants; learn culinary arts from top chefs
By Karen Rubin
Providence has been reborn as a cultural mecca for artists, designers, and creative people of all stripes, but especially the culinary arts, in many respects capitalizing on the brain power and vitality that emanates from the several prominent colleges based here.
Rhode Island’s capital city has a long tradition of enjoying good food but a decision in the 1970s to expand the Johnson & Wales college – a secretarial school founded in 1914 Gertrude I. Johnson and Mary T. Wales–to offer training in the culinary arts and hospitality, proved providential to locals and visitors, alike.
Over the years, Johnson & Wales has become the world’s largest culinary educator and its alumni are among the most well-respected chefs and restaurateurs in the world, like Emeril Lagasse ’77. But what has proved a boon to Providence, though, is that many J&W alumni stay in the city when they graduate. As a result, Providence has more degreed chefs per capita than any other city in the country.
This also accounts for the sophistication of Providence’s restaurant scene. A surprising number of local restaurants and chefs to achieve national recognition. For example, the International Herald Tribune selected local restaurant icon Al Forno as the “Best Restaurant in the World” for casual dining and two other local chefs were among Food & Wine’s “Best New Chefs of 2000.” Providence, a city of 165,000, also boasts two four-diamond restaurants, Mediterraneo, on Federal Hill and L’Epicureo located in the recently opened Hotel Providence in the Downcity district.
Providence’s history and geography also contributed to establishing its reputation as a culinary capital. Waves of immigrants have come to the city in the last two centuries, bringing their recipes and culinary traditions with them. As a result, Providence has a wide variety of ethnic restaurants from which to choose. In the space of a few blocks on Wickendon, for example, you can find Thai, Indian, Falafel, organic, pizza, and American-style cafes. Located on the shores of Narragansett Bay, local restaurants also make good use of the abundance of fresh seafood, prepared with creative flair.
The combination of the talent that comes out of Johnson & Wales, the dedication of the students who pay their way by working at restaurants and hotels in the city (classes are confined to Monday to Thursday so students can work), and the high number of alums who choose to stay in Providence has resulted in an incredible number and variety of topnotch restaurants (and not incidentally, fantastic service) at neighborhood prices.
During our first evening in Providence, we found our way to the Federal Hill district. In a city of neighborhoods, this is Providence’s Little Italy (in fact, Food Network Chef Mario Batali named Federal Hill “one of the Five Best Little Italys in the U.S.), though many other cultures and culinary styles are represented among the 60 restaurants located in this section.
Cassarino’s, one of the places understandably popular with locals (a true test), was opened 17 years ago by owner/chef Richard Cassarino, a J&W graduate. The restaurant won the prestigious designation, “Best of the Hill,” which is notable in a district known for its dining.
The restaurant is set in a pleasant townhouse-style atmosphere, with oak paneling, a fireplace, a picture window from our second-floor table overlooking the street, and befitting a “neighborhood” place the portions are enormous, elegantly served, the preparations are distinctive, incorporating local and seasonal ingredients for the freshest flavor, the presentations magnificent and the prices are moderate (entrees ranging from $12.99 to $21.95).
I feasted on one of Cassarino’s signature selections, a grilled veal chop prepared with Porcini mushroom demi-glace with goat cheese that simply astonished my palate. There are also an extraordinary selection of pastas like gnocchi Aurora (potato pasta tossed in a pink cream sauce with sun dried tomatoes, fresh tomatoes and Romano cheese); grilled selections, poultry, seafood, veal. Even the salad selections are unusual, like a snail salad (thinly sliced snails marinated in a tangy vinaigrette over a bed of greens). (Cassarino’s Ristorante, 177 Atwells Ave., 401-751-3333, www.CassarinosRI.com ).
For dessert, we wandered around the corner, to Pastiche, an elegant and thoroughly charming café where the desserts-tarts, tortes, mousse cakes, cheesecake–are so rich (they laugh when you ask for something low-calorie), you feel even the aromas have calories (92 Spruce Street, www.pastichefinedesserts.com ).
We lingered as we walked through DePasquale Plaza, a cobblestone plaza graced with a magnificent fountain, lined by restaurants offering outdoor dining in summer; the restaurants take turns sponsoring live music. Even though it was a Thursday night, the place was packed.
Dolce Villa is a new hotel that has opened right in the Plaza by the owners of the Mediterraneo Restaurant (a four-diamond), Caffe Dolce Vita restaurant, and Geppeto’s, which offers Karoke on Wednesday nights. The boutique hotel features 14 rooms (very modern, the rooms are done entirely in white in a South Beach kind of style, with flat-screen televisions) plus a villa that can be rented (63 DePasquale Plaza, 401-383-7031, www.dolcevillari.com ).
Federal Hill is where you come for an almost old-world experience in food: Venda Ravioli (265 Atwells Ave., 401-421-9105) is where you go for freshly made pasta and olive oil; Scialo Brothers, is a bakery that dates back to 1916; Antonelli’s sells fresh killed poultry (where locals go for Thanksgiving turkey); Ocean State Chocolate (founded by a J&W grad, (294 Atwells Ave, 401) 273-2022,www.oceanstatechocolates.com ).
Federal Hill Stroll is an event in June and October where about 30 restaurants and businesses serve tasty samplings to guests with an admission button.
Providence, it is interesting to note, was also the birthplace of the diner in 1872. We got to see the most beloved of all local diners, Haven Brothers; a trailer on wheels, it pulls up nightly and parks next to Providence City Hall, Downcity, serving burgers and other treats from the grill until the wee small hours.
Cooking Classes, Tours
If enrolling in a degreed cooking program is out of the question, you can take advantage of a number of cooking workshops and tours available in Providence
Aquaviva Chef Walter Potenza, owner, cookbook author and television host, runs a cooking school and does historic dinners-such as a classic Italian dinner of the 15th century before tomato was introduced; at Passover, he may do an Italian Jewish cooking demonstration. The 30th year of culinary classes will begin in October; they are held on Mondays, 6:30-9:30 p.m., with two hours dedicated to cooking and the rest to savor the creations. The classes range from sauces and ragus to La Cucina Toscana-understanding the culture behind the culinary ($75 per class; www.chefwalter.com/WP-Cooking-School.htm for schedule). Besides for cooking for personal pleasure, cooking classes are offered as corporate team building exercises. Aquaviva, 2004 and 2005 recipient of the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences Five Star Diamond Award is a “creative and casual” contempoary Italian bistro at 286 Atwells Ave (401-273-8664; www.chefwalter.com).
Also, Johnson &Wales offers “Chef’s Choice” where you can take a one to three-hour culinary class on a specific technique such as grilling, vegetarian, soups, Christmas cooking. (from $80/class, 800-342-5598, ext. 2336, www.jwu.edu/culinary/chefschoice/ri/ )
There is also the New England Wine School, which offers wine classes at Gracie’s Restaurant, 194 Washington St., from 5:30-7:30 p.m. every Sunday, where you learn the “language of wine” ($60 per class, 401-487-9678,www.newenglandwineschool.com ).
Cindy Salvato, a baking and pasta instructor at J&W and cookbook author, offers three-hour “A Taste of Federal Hill” tours that features these specialty places (email@example.com )
As is befitting its position as a culinary capital, Providence offers the world’s premiere museum for the preservation and study of the culinary arts. The Culinary Archives & Museum at Johnson & Wales University, often referred to as “The Smithsonian Institution of the Food Service Industry” contains more than 500,000 culinary artifacts representing five millenniums of history, such as a baker’s ring from the ruins of Pompei (it was used to stamp bread so it could be taxed by the government) and a 5,000-year old Scythian trade knife, antique stoves and kitchen gadgets.
Industrialist Paul Fritzsche donated his collection rare cookbooks dating back to the 1500’s, containing in many instances the only known copies of certain books. Its collection of original presidential documents (known as the “History of the First Stomach”) incorporates one of only three known existing menus from President Lincoln’s Second Inauguration.
More than 4,000 menus from around the world came from the collection of Zack Hanle, Editor-at-Large of Bon Appetit magazine. Other components of the Museum’s collection were donated by Earle MacAusland, the dynamic founder and publisher of Gourmet magazine, New York Times columnist and prolific cookbook author Jean Hewitt, author Nika Hazelton, Christian Science Monitor writer Phyllis Hanes, Dorothy Allen Gray of the Toronto Globe and Mail, McCall’s magazines editor Mary Norton and Providence Journal food editor Donna Lee. Additional items came from America’s most recognized and best loved author-chef, Julia Child. Recently donated materials from the Greenbrier Resorts’ executive chef Herman Rusch are currently being catalogued. An international array of chefs, restaurateurs, and food and wine-related corporations have contributed to the Museum’s holdings. Several professional organizations including the Honorable Order of the Golden Toque, Les Dames d’Escoffier International, and the International Food & Beverage Forum have named the Museum their repository (Culinary Archives & Museum, 315 Harborside Boulevard, 401-598-2805, www.culinary.org ).
A Vibrant Arts & Cultural Hub
Another huge asset that benefits locals and visitors alike is the Rhode Island School of Design (known by everyone as RISD-pronounced RisDee), which is right on the Riverwalk. Everywhere you look it seems, there are flourishes to delight the eye that originate from here. Just outside the door, for example, there is a gazebo on the river with fabulous tiles (reminiscent of Egyptian art). You also notice a great sense of style in the restaurants and shops-as if this is a sensibility and value that is shared by the community.
Much of the visual arts influence in Providence can be attributed to the influence of RISD, one of the nation’s top art universities. RISD’s Museum of Art houses more than 80,000 works of art, ranging from Greek sculpture to French Impressionist paintings, Chinese terracotta to contemporary multimedia art. The Museum’s Pendleton House is the earliest example of an “American wing” in any museum; it features an extraordinary collection of 18th century American decorative art. The museum offers “Always on Sunday” seminars weekly at 2:30 p.m., which vary from engagements with an artist discussing his work; listening to and analyzing music; or focusing on a curator’s most intriguing era of art history. There are also guided tours Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. (401-454-6500, www.risd.edu/museum.cfm ).
RISD is perhaps the epicenter of a cultural revival to rival the Renaissance. Indeed, the Saturday night we saw WaterFire, the extraordinary fire spectacle on the river, we were able to wander into RISD’s auditorium where a convention of professional musicians featured free concerts.
The night we visited Federal Hill, turned out to be Gallery Night, held on the third Thursday of the month, from March through November, when 27 of the city’s hot “art spots” open for a “visual arts party.” (To facilitate, you get to park free, ride the Art Bus that takes you from place to place, gallery night guides are stationed at Citizens Plaza and ride the buses; 401-751-2628, www.gallerynight.info )
The performing arts are also a big part of Providence culture, led by Tony Award-winning Trinity Repertory Company. Music lovers will enjoy the Rhode Island Philharmonic and Opera Providence. Theatergoers can enjoy performances from companies such as the Perishable Theater and the Providence Black Repertory Company (a misleading name since the company is more multicultural and more performance based than just theater). For dance enthusiasts, there is the Festival Ballet of Rhode Island and the Groundwerx Dance Theatre.
Two impressive venues, the gold-gilded Providence Performing Arts Center and Veterans Memorial Auditorium, are not only historic landmarks, but also feature Broadway musicals, children’s performances, popular seasonal ballets, opera, plays and musical concerts. The Dunkin Donuts Center draws big name performers and shows from around the world.
Brown University has also contributed to the culture scene. Local Brown University graduate, Barnaby Evans, was the creator of WaterFire Providence, a multi-sensory experience that has drawn hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city. This series of bonfires installed on the three rivers of downtown Providence entices with aromatic wood smoke, flickering firelight and the enchanting music. The event occurs several times a month from May to October and has become a “must see” for visitors to the city.
Providence is also home to leading arts figures like Chris Van Allsburg, author of The Polar Express and Jumanji, and Paula Vogel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright.
The positioning of Providence as a haven for artists and entertainers is not by accident, but by design. Home to the famous Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and a staunch supporter of the arts, the City of Providence has become a haven for artists and entertainers. With the largest number of working artists in the country, Providence boasts an eclectic mix of galleries, theaters and museums.
The city’s Arts and Entertainment District has bloomed, thanks largely to tax incentives offered to artists who chose to live and/or work in the area. The district, which includes several art galleries and performance spaces, is anchored by AS220, an alternative arts performance, studio and living space with regular performances, readings and gallery exhibits.
Much of the vibrancy of Providence’s cultural scene is on view at the FirstWorksProv fall festival, showcasing “The art of what’s new” in a series of events from Sept. 29 through Nov. 4 ranging from multi-media spectacles to performances with hip hop legends to ground-breaking digital installations.
For example, “Pixilerations v. 2” is a series of several performances and installations by more than 40 digital media artists, on view from Thursdays through Saturdays, Sept. 29 to Oct. 15, 3-8 p.m. (admission is free). Arts and new technologies intersect in exhibitions and performances including electronic art works, interactive performance, hyper-text and video and audio screenings.
For a complete listing and description FirstWorksProv, call 401-421-4278 or visit www.firstworksprov.org.
The Providence Warwick Convention & Visitor Center website has marvelous calendar of events and planning tools, One West Exchange St., Providence RI 02903, 401-274-1636, www.GoProvidence.com.
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