Good eats in Rhode Island: a guide

Twinoaks

Rhode Island is food nirvana.

I’m not a foodie, trust me. I do not flip out over broccoli rabe sauteed with saffron and minced capers, and I do not turn up my nose at TGI Friday’s once in a while. But Rhode Island has an incredible variety of restaurants and cafes and bistros and delis and bakeries. In fact – ahem, ahem – I just read that Providence is the #3 city in the country for foodies. Who says so, you ask? Oh, no one. Just Travel & Leisure.

Take Italian food, for example. Some years back, a New York food critic said in print that there were only two places in the United States where the Italian food was any good: Manhattan (naturally) and Rhode Italian. Amen! Costantino’s. Angelo’s Civita Farnese. Camille’s. And (hats off to them) Twin Oaks in Cranston, the ultimate old-fashioned Italian restaurant, with Provimi veal, and waiters who look like Italian versions of Victorian footmen, and huge platters of food. Here’s how you can recognize Rhode Islanders: you say the words “Twin Oaks,” and you watch them close their eyes and shiver with delight.

Feel like Chinese? My two favorites are Shanghai on the east side of Providence, not far from Brown, and – a sentimental favorite – the China Inn in Pawtucket. I first went there on New Year’s Eve 1978, when it still had red-checked tablecloths. They’re in a nicer space now, but they still serve elegant excellent food.

And the local mini-chains, naturally. What Rhode Islander doesn’t eat at Gregg’s? (I’m a card-carrying customer. But I confess Partner and I don’t go as often as we used to. Too aggressively bland – what a friend of mine used to call “gentile food” – and too many other good choices.) And Chelo’s (although I was never a big fan; their specialty, French meat pie, isn’t one of my favorites).

And every ethnicity you can think of. An Ethiopian place called Abyssinia just opened on Wickenden Street, and I am trying to prevail upon Partner to go there. Japanese food is still underrepresented, but when my friend Pat comes to town, we go to Tokyo on Wickenden for dragon roll and ahiru donburi and ginger ice cream. And there is Latin food everywhere, sometimes even authentic: Bolivian, Peruvian, real Mexican. You want Turkish? Efendi’s Mediterranean Grill is right down the road in Cranston. I can think of at least two rodizio-style Brazilian barbecue joints, where they just keep bringing meat to your table – on swords! – until you signal them to stop. (There’s a new cafe a few blocks from here called Tea in the Sahara, which displays a Moroccan flag in the window, but I haven’t been there yet; I’m afraid I’ll be disappointed.)

The Portuguese and Azoreans and Verdeans have made their own contributions. If you have never had bitoque – steak with a fried egg on top, and a side of thinly-sliced fried potatoes soaking in the steak’s juices – you have not lived. (Riviera over in East Prov is good; Madeira, also in East Prov, is better; Estrela do Mar, also in East Prov, is supreme.)

If you want Tex-Mex for comfort, join Partner and me at the Cactus Grille for nachos. (Last time we went, the new kitchen manager introduced himself to us and told us that he’d be revamping the menu soon to be fresher and more authentic.  We look forward to seeing what he’s going to do.)

Pizza and calzones and spinach pies are a religion here. As with Chinese food, everyone has a passionate favorite. Caserta’s on Federal Hill is good, but – for me – not the best. For a Friday-night treat, we order Ronzio (although someone at work just recommended New York Pizza). For work functions, I order Pizza Pie-er (expensive, but tasty). But the best I’ve had locally – and I have to hand it to her for finding them – is Apollonia’s fave, Catanzaro’s in Cranston, with a caramelized-onion rectangular pizza that was sweet and savory and tore the top of my head off with deliciousness.

All the big national steakhouses are here now: Shula’s, Ruth’s Chris, Fleming’s. Capital Grille started here in Providence, thank you very much. I spent my childhood chewing on huge chunks of red meat, so I don’t crave it so much now; but now and then a nice piece of prime rib, or a nice steak, is just what you want. (I like Fleming’s, because the service is so pleasant, and the lighting is flattering to my pale pasty complexion. Although Shula’s gave us a very nice meal this summer.)

Doris Lessing, in her science-fiction novel “Shikasta,” has an alien commenting on earthlings and our unnatural obsession with food: “In describing the attractions of a city,” he writes, “first of all will be listed the food that is available and even the details of the cooking!”

Sadly – or happily – Doris Lessing got it right.

(And I didn’t even mention doughnuts, or doughboys, or clamcakes . . . .)


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About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to futureworld@cox.net.

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