Providence, Rhode Island, comprises 20 square miles and a multiplicity of worlds. The capital of the smallest state encompasses the hallowed halls of academia, a cutting-edge arts scene, historic architecture, a wealth of boutiques and vintage shops, an amusement park’s worth of roller coaster hills, immigrant communities established and new, and 25 neighborhoods, each with its own distinctive character. It also has a thriving restaurant scene, aided and abetted by this density and diversity (as well as the culinary training ground of Johnson & Wales University).
Providence punches above its weight. Diners find ambitious spots with national reach (the intimate, envelope-pushing Birch and its more-relaxed sibling, Oberlin) and tiny upstarts (Berrí, a wine bar offering a handful of deeply eclectic dishes), specialists (Rebelle Artisan Bagels, started by an MIT-trained chemical engineer) and specialty shops (Yoleni’s, an emporium for Greek products, wine, and prepared foods that has been likened to a Hellenic Eataly), regional treasures (Olneyville N.Y. System, where cooks assemble wieners by stacking buns up their forearms) and cuisines from all over the world (the just-about-to-open Dolores, featuring the cooking of Puebla and Oaxaca, from the mezcal specialists at El Rancho Grande). All over town, menus showcase the bounty of the surrounding waters and farms. There may be no better way to get a flavor of the city than through its restaurants. Here are some places where you can begin to scratch the surface.
Open now for almost 40 years and as vital as ever, this Italian restaurant is one of Providence's most influential and beloved. Started by husband-wife team George Germon (who died in 2015) and Johanne Killeen in 1980, it has seen chefs such as Ken Oringer, Suzanne Goin, and Wylie Dufresne pass through its kitchens. It is also known as the birthplace of grilled pizza, which is required ordering, its hand-flung crust thin and crackery, yet somehow chewy too. Striped with charred marks, it might come topped simply with dollops of tomato sauce, cheese, herbs, and ribbons of scallion (the margarita) or anything from pumpkin to fried calamari. Follow it with clams al forno, served in a fire-blackened enamel casserole with a spicy, briny sauce and a lemon quarter. Baked pasta shells go crisp at the edges, swimming in tomato sauce pink with cream; handmade pumpkin ravioli are a touch more delicate. Dessert is a highlight not an afterthought; made fresh for each table, it must be ordered at the beginning of the meal. Tarts for two come with crème anglaise and fillings from apple to caramelized pumpkin to plum, depending on the season. There are specials, too: One night we encounter granita made with grapes from the vines that twine over the brick patio at the entrance. What could be more charming, or more local?
Inside, the space is a warren: two floors, several bars, a nook of tables here, a fireplace there. Expect a little jostling, and probably a wait. The thing to do is nab a spot at the bar and order a pizza and a drink from one of the friendly bartenders. (Don't bother asking for a cocktail list; it's not that kind of place. You want something classic here. A Negroni is an excellent choice.) Strike up a conversation with one of the characters beside you — a theoretical mathematician, a skittish clone of Ally Sheedy in "The Breakfast Club" — until you get a table, where you can continue with the rest of your meal alongside exuberant pols, be-suited rainmakers, and patrician types dining en famille. Eating here is a joy. If Al Forno sticks around for 40 more years, we’ll all be glad.
577 South Water St., 401-273-9760, www.alforno.com
This is something America does right: offer opportunity to refugees seeking a new life in a safer place. That's what the Akhtarini family found when they left Syria, eventually landing in Providence. In their hometown of Aleppo, father Youssef owned a bakery that was decimated in the war. But he got out with wife Reem, their children, and his rolling pin.
This is something America does not do quite as right: cafe culture. (A Dunkies grabbed on the go does not count.) This is where Youssef Akhtarini gives back to his new community. The baker opened Aleppo Sweets, which is the kind of place you want to while away the day, sipping piping hot tea with mint, eating mezze and baklava, playing the board games the bakery/cafe keeps on hand, and soaking in the atmosphere. It's just so pretty in here, with its mirrors and blue accents and copper pots and green plants galore, medallion-pattern screens in the windows and pierced metal lights hanging from above. There are tables you can work and eat at, and comfier chairs for settling in.
On the menu: tea and Arabic coffee; small plates of hummus, the thick and delicious strained yogurt labneh, and stuffed grape leaves; flatbreads called fatayer topped with za’atar, Aleppo pepper paste, lamb; kebabs and falafel; and musabaha, a dish of tahini topped with chickpeas, tomatoes, parsley, toasted cashews, and fried Syrian bread. It’s a lovely lead-up to the main event, baklava: squares stuffed with walnuts, crisp ladyfingers, nests of shredded phyllo with centers of whole pistachios. Pick some from the case to eat here, or box them up for later (or both).
Aleppo Sweets opened in January. In September it appeared on Bon Appetit's list of 50 nominees for the magazine's best new restaurant awards. America: opportunity, now with a little more cafe culture in the mix.
107 Ives St., www.alepposweets.com
James Mark opened his first restaurant, North, with two other cooks in 2012. It was a cheeky and skilled celebration of big flavors, with echoes from Mark's time in New York's Momofuku empire. It still is those things, only in a new, downtown location in hipster hotel The Dean, and largely in the hands of intern-turned-boss Andrew McQuesten. (The last time I was there, a friend and I devoured a giant fried fish head showered in cilantro and mint, served over rice with various sauces pungent and fiery. It was excellent.) The team has also now opened the Dean Bar in the hotel.
Meanwhile, back in the old West Side space, Mark created something new: Big King, named for his grandmother Big King Lee Mark. The menu is influenced by Japan. The restaurant is quieter in a good way — focused, meditative. There are two wood counters and two small booths at the back. The menu changes each night, with choices of four or six courses plus some a la carte dishes, handwritten in a notebook and based around ingredients grown, raised, or caught by people the cooks know. These relationships are part of the point, not a side effect.
You come here to eat bonito tataki with greens, tempura squash, savory egg custard, grilled bluefish rice with dashi: deceptively simple food that leaves you feeling well. You come here to drink sake and learn about it from Mark, who was nominated for a James Beard award last year. You come here because the people behind the restaurant genuinely seem to do their best to treat everyone in their orbit well. All of it makes Big King feel special.
3 Luongo Square, www.bigkingpvd.com
It's not possible to single out a restaurant among the dozens that populate Providence's Italian neighborhood, and you shouldn't. Wander along Atwells Avenue, down its side streets and through its plazas and squares, dipping into shops, bakeries, and restaurants as the mood takes you.
Browse your way through Costantino's Venda Ravioli and Tony's Colonial, two Italian markets brimming with meats and cheeses, antipasti, fresh pasta and breads, sweets and condiments. Head to Caserta Pizzeria, home of the "Wimpy Skippy." It's a spinach pie stuffed with olives, cheese, and pepperoni — but what you really want is the plain pizza, thick, rectangular slices topped in nothing but tangy tomato sauce. Then break for something sweet. Scialo Bros. Bakery is an old-world little shop that sells Italian cookies, ricotta pie, and less-traditional offerings like lemon elderberry cupcakes. If you're ready to rest your feet, Pastiche is the sort of dessert shop that's become an endangered species, with table service, tall slices of carrot cake and chocolate layer cake, and an array of hot beverages to sip alongside.
For a sit-down meal, call in advance to score a hard-to-come-by reservation at the 18-seat Enoteca Umberto, where chef Lia Bellini and husband/host Umberto serve a five-course set menu based around ingredients from Italy and the neighborhood. Many locals also favor Camille's, open since 1914 and one of the city's oldest restaurants. It's located inside a former mansion, with stained glass surrounding the door and dining room decor that feels almost surreally rich in this day and age — thick carpets, tablecloths, burgundy drapery, framed silver hanging on the walls. The menu serves up scungilli and pasta e fagioli, gnocchi in pink vodka sauce and tubular wagon wheels blanketed in Bolognese, chicken Marsala and grilled pork chops with peppers. The restaurant won a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence in 2019, but you can also get something called a California Hot Tub Martini. The service is simultaneously courtly and jokey in a wonderful way. If you want to feel like a wiseguy, eat where Sinatra used to eat when he was in town, or indulge in an over-the-top, boozy lunch, this is the place to come.
Costantino's Venda Ravioli, 275 Atwells Ave., 401-421-9105, www.vendaraviolistore.com. Tony's Colonial, 311 Atwells Ave., 401-621-8675, tonyscolonial.mybigcommerce.com. Caserta Pizzeria, 121 Spruce St., 401-621-3618, www.casertapizzeria.com. Scialo Bros. Bakery, 257 Atwells Ave., 877-421-0986, www.scialobakery.com. Pastiche, 92 Spruce St., 401-861-5190, www.pastichefinedesserts.com. Enoteca Umberto, 256 Atwells Ave., 401-272-8466, enotecaumberto.restaurantwebexpert.com. Camille's, 71 Bradford St., 401-751-4812, www.camillesonthehill.com.
Sometimes we take nice things for granted. That restaurant we're sure will always be there, for instance, until it isn't and the handwringing begins. We've seen this plenty in Boston in recent years, as many of our best restaurants have closed. But Providence seems to be able to maintain a tier of stalwart occasion spots — Gracie's, Mill's Tavern — even in the face of constant next-new-things.
New Rivers has been around since 1990, opened by Bruce and Pat Tillinghast and owned for the better part of the last decade by chef Beau and general manager Elizabeth Vestal, who met while working here. They've been walking the local, sustainable walk from the beginning. The restaurant is located in a former mill building, its substantial brick bulk broken up by many windows, from which amber light streams. It just looks welcoming.
That sense continues inside, beneath twinkle lights, at the bar where everyone seems to know one another. If you ever wanted to feel you’re living in Jane Smiley’s “Moo: New England Edition,” pull up a stool. Everyone, staff included, seems to be a professional artist and RISD professor or alum. Let the hot gossip of academe scald your ears most enjoyably as you eat an excellent burger and drink a bourbon-pear cocktail (there’s a nice little wine and beer list, too). Before you know it, you’ll be talking photography equipment and sharing the charcuterie that is a Vestal specialty with a bunch of new friends. (You’ll want to keep the delightfully light spaghetti alla chitarra cacio e pepe all to yourself, though.) As far as I’m concerned, the dessert menu is just about perfect: one lemon curd tart, one chocolate pot de creme, and the rest just several flavors of ice cream and sorbet, plus a half-dozen kinds of cheese. It’s easy to forget the older guard in the face of the new, but we shouldn’t take places like New Rivers for granted.
7 Steeple St., 401-751-0350, www.newriversrestaurant.com
Nicks on Broadway
The sleek Nicks on Westminster opened over the summer in the Financial District. The look is stylish and contemporary. The food is great. But I can't help it: I'm eternally partial to the OG Nicks on Broadway, which chef Derek Wagner opened in 2002. Lined in shiny red tile, often cramped, with seating alongside the open kitchen, it has more of a diner-with-serious-culinary-chops vibe.
I still remember the first meal I ate at Nicks. It was lunch — in its first location, the restaurant was a breakfast and lunch place, adding dinner when it moved to its current space a few blocks away — and I had the most incredible duck sandwich on buttery brioche. That’s when I became a regular. I don’t even want to know how many brunches I’ve had here, devouring stacks of fluffy pancakes and eggs with black beans and salsa.
I was a little resistant to dinner when Wagner started serving it, for no logical reason at all. It seems silly now. Why fight roasted tomato soup, chicken liver pate on charred toast, house-made pasta, and slow-roasted pork with red chile-cheddar polenta, with most of the ingredients coming from local farmers and fishermen? (Wagner is on the board of Chefs Collaborative, a nonprofit devoted to building a better food system.) Because change is hard. In other words, I’ll be happily eating at Nicks on Westminster in the very near future.
500 Broadway, 401-421-0286, www.nicksonbroadway.com
Chef Champe Speidel won acclaim for more than a decade in Bristol, where Persimmon got its start. A few years back, he and wife/restaurant co-owner Lisa Speidel moved the restaurant to Providence's East Side. It's hard to even recognize the space that for decades was the bistro Rue de L'Espoir: Everything is light where it once was dark, all cream and gleaming wood and pops of bright persimmon orange, anchored by an open kitchen populated by chefs in whites.
The decor reflects the spirit of Speidel’s cooking, precise in plating and technique, attractive without being ostentatious, tasteful. There’s a reason he has been a James Beard award semifinalist many times over. Like so many Providence chefs, he relies on what the seasons and local producers provide: Delicata squash becomes tempura placed atop spiced yogurt, showered in crisped leaves of sage; Atlantic halibut is roasted and served with potato agnolotti, parsnips, glazed celery root, and turnips, swaddled in beurre blanc and crowned with purple potato chips. For dessert, warm sticky toffee pudding comes with pumpkin ice cream, pepitas, and spiced cream.
The room has fantastic energy, packed to the gills even on the odd weeknight. It's the Providence restaurant where you're most likely to spot a local weatherman or an academic you follow on Twitter, in town to give a talk about George Eliot. Food and service are consistent. If you want to take care of an out-of-town guest, this is a fine place to take them.
99 Hope St., 401-432-7422, www.persimmonri.com
Providence has long had good spots for plant-based dining, such as The Grange, which offers a menu of big-flavored dishes (General Tso's tacos with seitan and kimchi, an oyster-mushroom po'boy sandwich), good cocktails, and a cozy brewpub feel with its mismatched chairs and porch swing.
But when Plant City opened over the summer, it blew things wide open. So many options! Chef Matthew Kenney, who operates plant-based restaurants from Brooklyn to Bahrain, is behind the 10,000-square-foot multilevel complex that comprises several different dining concepts, a coffee bar, and a market selling nut cheese, meat substitutes, pantry staples, books, and more. On the main floor, there's New Burger, offering burgers, fries, and other comfort food; Make Out, where you can build your own bowls and buy smoothies and baked goods; the coffee bar, where baristas flex with oat-milk lattes; and a grab-and-go section. The space is open and bright, with plenty of room to seat yourself among radiant-skinned customers talking about yoga, students working on laptops, and co-workers lunching. The staff is friendly and happy to offer recommendations (they really love the nachos, drizzled in butternut squash queso). Upstairs is a dining room with table service and separate areas for Double Zero, the Neapolitan pizza concept, and Bar Verde, serving Mexican fare.
The food is good, the aesthetics are modern and on point, and the patio, with its rattan, egg-shaped chairs, is one of the nicest outdoor-dining options around. Not long ago a large-scale vegan dining complex would have seemed a farfetched idea. Plant City shows just how mainstream plant-based eating has become.
334 S. Water St., 401-429-2029, www.matthewkenneycuisine.com/plant-city-pvd