New Englanders always find creative ways to deal with adversity. With persistence and ingenuity, we survived the paralyzing Blizzard of 1978, and destructive hurricanes like Carol in the 1950s, which devastated coastal communities from Narragansett to Provincetown. It’s no surprise, then, that Rhode Islanders and their New England neighbors are ready, willing, and more than able to take on the coronavirus pandemic to save their renowned restaurant industry — which shores up state economies — with a one, two punch that shows the virus who’s boss.
Some eateries have, sadly, gone dark permanently. In Rhode Island and elsewhere, however, struggling restaurants have found innovative ways to stay open and minimize losses, including the ancient pleasure of outdoor dining.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has repeatedly said he would not fly on a plane nor eat inside a restaurant at this time, yet he encourages us to dine outside, which he describes as “much safer” than inside dining.
Rhode Island restaurateurs have created an impressive list of outdoor table choices, including repurposing parking lots, waterfronts, and any adjacent land where an al fresco meal can be savored, public health preserved, and restaurant profits protected.
Probably the most creative repurposing space was born with the closing of a 14-block section of Atwells Avenue — the “Hanover Street” of Providence’s Federal Hill section — so that its 50 licensed restaurants can put more tables outside on weekends. Such is the impressive show of determination called “Al Fresco on the Hill.”
Nathan Nerbonne, manager of Il Massimo — one of the larger restaurants — orchestrates 16 additional tables onto the street outside the restaurant every Friday. Added to the eight tables that are fixtures on the sidewalk in front of Il Massimo, this triples the restaurant’s capacity. Nerbonne estimates that this plan has kept Il Massimo at 75 percent of its normal earnings. Miraculous!
The al fresco plan sprang from a joint effort by the Federal Hill Commerce Association, the Providence Police, the mayor of Providence, Providence firefighters, and the crucial cooperative efforts and support of Federal Hill’s restaurants by other vendors, their customers, and Federal Hill residents.
Fortuitously National Grid determined the gas lines on Atwells Avenue needed replacing last spring. Their collaboration with the Commerce Association’s executive director, Rick Simone, resulted in a plan that allowed the utility to change the gas lines in March, then pass along their street closing model to the Commerce Association for the weekend street, closings that have allowed restaurants to expand their seating and avoid bankruptcy through the spring, summer, and early fall seating months.
Beyond Federal Hill, regional restaurants have expanded their seating by turning parking lots to dining terraces and other successful creative expansions. Not all restaurants, however, saw expansion as the answer. Edward A. Carosi, founder of Uncle Tony’s Pizza chain with restaurants in East Providence, Cranston, and Johnston, has not moved outside during the virus. Carosi says his business model was always “built on takeout.” He has spent his energy and marketing skills on boxing the usual pizzas and calzones, as always, but by selling whole meals — from antipastos to main courses with side dishes and even dessert. His advertising underscores that “Uncle Tony” is still preparing a wide range of Italian fare, packed up and ready to eat wherever you choose. Carosi estimates this focus on take-out has maintained 70 percent of his customer base.
Europeans and others in climates that allow outdoor dining almost year-round know the joy of eating a great meal in the fresh air. The enchantment of a beautiful night, stars overhead, a great wine and a fine meal have historically been the elixir everyone needs to feel content and safe.
In a way, the terrible virus is responsible for reminding us that we can escape its horror, however briefly, by moving meals outside. Whether it’s a city balcony in a Boston condo, a small space in your Brookline back yard, a table for four outside a North End restaurant, or waterfront dining in Revere, eat out more often. It provides an escape from the quarantine mentality we long to forget, if just for a few hours.
Mary Ann Sorrentino, firstname.lastname@example.org, is a freelance columnist.