Weekend: Providence, RI
After your outstanding dinner, spend those calories on great Providence walks and places to visit along the way.
Providence has always had great food — the city teems with citizens hailing from Italy, Portugal, France, and all parts of Asia, and it’s home to one of the nation’s top culinary schools. Discovering a bounty of classic dishes here is one of the best ways to connect with the heritage of this 370-year-old waterside community. Now more than ever, great food is front and center in “the Renaissance City,” so we put on our walking shoes and set out to sample some of the best of its many gems.
Arriving Friday Evening, we headed straight to Federal Hill, home of Italian cuisine in Providence. We poked into Venda Ravioli and were glad we packed a cooler — the best way to bring home those handmade pasta pillows stuffed with basil, ricotta, and aromatic Gorgonzola cheese.
But much to our surprise, it was Chinese food that caught our eye for dinner here — at MuMu Cuisine, smack-dab on Atwells Avenue. A friend had given us a good tip: Ask for the Mongolian hot pot (it’s not on the menu). We also indulged in tea-smoked duck and whole steamed sea bass — but even the most pedestrian of Chinese food standards (scallion pancakes, Peking ravioli, and General Gao’s chicken) are carefully prepared here from fresh, vibrant ingredients.
After that — in the interest of international goodwill, mind you — we couldn’t help but cross the street for a dessert of torrone (almond-studded nougats) and chewy cherry-and-almond macaroons from Scialo Bros Bakery. Sweet dreams …
Saturday morning, and our first decision of the day — what to sample to start off right? I first tasted Olga Bravo’s morning treats more than a decade ago, when she set up shop next to Walker’s Roadside Stand in Little Compton. Now Olga’s Cup and Saucer is in Providence’s Davol Square neighborhood, and her baked goods are better than ever. Breakfast flatbreads (topped with tomatoes and fresh herbs) and out-of-this-world muffins, fruit pies, and scones launched our first morning in Providence. It was hard not to return for lunch, but we forged onward.
Walking along Thayer Street took a bite out of our budget. We could barely carry all the bags crammed with clothing, books, and trinkets we apparently really needed (but had managed to live thus far without). Lunch would have to be easy so that we could return to ogling still more treasures we couldn’t afford. Farmstead was a golden selection. More than 100 cheeses (mostly domestic) are on display, along with house-made patés and terrines, honeys, olive oils, and crusty breads. We chose a perfectly ripe slice of Constant Bliss (a cow’s-milk cheese from Vermont’s Jasper Hill Farm) and a batard of bread. Owners Matt and Kate Jennings offer dinner at their sit-down restaurant, La Laiterie, next door — yet another reason to return to Little Rhody.
We’d like to report that we walked for the next few hours, but truth be told, we were knackered, and a long, delicious nap was how Saturday afternoon unfolded. When we awoke, hunger beckoned again, and we answered the call with a meal at Gracie’s. Chef Joe Hafner makes simple, ingredient-driven meals, with a strong focus on locally caught seafood. His menu follows the seasons, but if you’re really lucky, you may be able to get some of his pickled vegetables, too.
Sunday morning … Already our last day, and it was clear there would be no way to visit all the restaurants and markets on our long list. We knew we couldn’t leave without sampling the fine fare at Aspire Restaraunt (at Hotel Providence), though, so we opted for breakfast. We ordered a big variety, but did our best to take small bites from decadent platefuls of Belgian waffles, omelets, and fresh muffins.
We ate hot dogs for lunch — but don’t laugh, because these were no ordinary wieners. At Spike’s Junkyard Dogs we learned a thing or two about teaching an old frank new tricks. The signature “Junkyard Dog” is topped with pickles, spicy peppers, house-made mustard, and scallions — not for the faint of heart. Sauerkraut, teriyaki sauce, and buffalo-wing sauce and blue cheese are also on the menu. Or, for the purists among you, try one au naturel for a fresh taste of one of these smoky, spicy, 100 percent beef (no fillers, no sweeteners) wonders.
With the car packed, our last meal was at newcomer Temple Downtown, just steps from the Rhode Island state house. A curved, candlelit entrance winds into an elegant dining room, serving a menu created with locally sourced ingredients. Traditional stuffed clams get along well with tempura-battered, deep-fried broccoli rabe and thin, crispy steak frites. Were it not for the long ride ahead, we would have delved more deeply into the extensive wine and cocktail list, as well. Divine Providence indeed …