PROVIDENCE — When Armando Bisceglia chugs his espresso-tinted Vespa up Atwells Avenue, he doesn’t see as many green, white, and red-striped flags waiving from the storefronts. The music that’s coming out of the opened-door restaurants isn’t usually in Italian.
Federal Hill, where he calls home and where the legendary tales of Providence were born, has changed. And what it needed, especially coming out of the pandemic, he said one bright afternoon sitting by the window of his new venture, was a “refresh.”
“The restaurant life isn’t glamorous like people think it is. What I want to build is an education for the next generation. A place to go where people actually enjoy being around each other, and where they enjoy real, authentic Italian food,” he said.
Bonanno, a new concept by Bisceglia, is set to open on Friday. Unlike his first restaurant on the Hill, Bacco Vino & Contorni, which is directly next door and has a more traditional style, Bonanno will offer small plates, a mercàto to purchase imported goods (each of them are also on the menu) from Southern Italy, and a strong emphasis on wine that can’t be found elsewhere in Federal Hill — or throughout Rhode Island, for that matter.
There are plates centered around the very products he has shipped from Italy, such as the salsicca di polpo ($16), which is a vivid octopus carpaccio with black olive crema topped with thinly sliced strips of celery. At the table, he drizzles an organic extra virgin olive oil with roots from the Mazara del Vallo countryside.
The branzino sott’olio ($20) is grilled branzino preserves in olive oil served in tins with crunchy crostini, capers, and a fresh lemon to squeeze. When asked how diners will feel about the meat served in a can, he said, “I’m ready to make people feel uncomfortable.”
“I’ve accepted the fact that what I’ve created here isn’t going to be for everyone. But I’m not trying to be for everyone. You’re not going to find any chicken parm on the menu,” he said. “This is going to be for the ones that are ready to try the authentic food, the authentic experience.”
There are 22 glasses (or whole bottles) of wine to choose from that he said are unique to Rhode Island, such as a Pallagrello Bianco I.G.P. from Campania, which is an organic straw-yellow colored wine with aromas of apricot with a floral-mineral taste. Or a Gragnano from Naples, which is a typical varietal of the Sorrento Peninsula, is ruby-red in color and crisp.
But there are a few traditional twists on — and off — the menu, too.
His colatura ($12) is freshly-made cannoli shell from across the street at Scialo Brothers Bakery, stuffed with ricotta, anchovy juice, capers, and dipped on each side with a parsley gremolata. In fact, Carol Gaeta, whose father Luigi founded the bakery in 1916 after they came to Providence from Italy, and her staff are churning all the cannolo and bread products for Bonanno in their massive brick ovens.
“We keep using all my dad’s recipes. We’re just carrying on the tradition, while creating a few things of our own,” said Gaeta, who grew up on the second floor above the bakery. Her grandparents lived on the third. They took over in 1993 after their father died at 103.
His partnership with Gaeta and other companies that have the history he can’t compete with is his way to “put a spotlight on them.”
“Those are the kinds of things that keep this neighborhood alive. I hear all the time, ‘Federal Hill isn’t Italian anymore.’ We just need to showcase what we have, elevate what we have, and open more places like this,” he said.
Bisceglia speaks Italian to his staff, Italian music is humming overhead, there’s murano glass, and art from the motherland hangs on the walls. And next door, at Bacco, Bisceglia’s mother, Anna Bisceglia, is sitting at a table an afternoon each week with a plate in front of her.
“We want you to take on a journey. A journey to Southern Italy. Not by plane, but by plate. These dishes contain top-quality products that have been packed and prepared in small, seaside Italian villages. once in a jar, now on your plate,” reads a blurb on the bottom of Bonanno’s menu.
“I want people to come here, to dine here and for the next breed of Italians to work here and learn,” said Bisceglia. “And then they can go out and open another place like this. Open a bunch of them, all over.”
“This is more than just a dining room,” he said, flapping his arms in his dark-grey apron. “That is more than just a kitchen. At Bacco, I cook for you like you’re in my home. Here, I cook for you like we’re in Italy.”
The idea to open Bonanno came right before he came down with COVID-19 last Easter weekend. It was put on hold after he was hospitalized and was forced into the ICU because of the severity of his illness. It took him months to fully recover; having to learn how to walk and breathe comfortably again.
Bonanno, which means “good year,” is “for me, beyond the business aspect. This is more than just the profits,” said Bisceglia. “It’s the understanding of a knowledge that used to be here for so long and has kind of disappeared at times. It’s slowly coming back, building-by-building. And I’m going to make sure it comes back.”
Bonanno is located at 256 Atwells Avenue in Providence. The restaurant will be open seven days a week, starting Nov. 19.