For many years, Providence’s most exhilarating culinary experience was on Federal Hill, where you could slurp spaghetti next to members of the Cosa Nostra. Then, in 1980, Johanne Killeen and George Germon opened Al Forno near the waterfront, launching a new era of ambitious cooking with their wood-fired Northern Italian cuisine.
Today, the most exciting restaurants in Providence are scattered about town and run by a network of ambitious young chefs. One of them is Derek Wagner, the lanky, soul-patched chef-owner of the upscale diner Nicks on Broadway. Wagner prepares every dish with the same earnest execution and loyalty to local ingredients, which I notice as I eat a juicy pulled pork-and-cheddar sandwich and watch him struggle to please his toughest customer of the day: the grade-schooler who’s sent back his bagel for the second time. "One lightly toasted bagel!" Wagner yells to one of his cooks, flashing a grin to his finicky friend. A man at the counter requests his hotcakes extra-thin; I follow suit. We’re rewarded with sublimely spongy flapjacks. Next I head to La Laiterie, the restaurant attached to Matt and Kate Jennings’s cheese shop, Farmstead, which changed cheese courses at Providence restaurants almost overnight when it opened in 2003. At La Laiterie, Matt handles the savory offerings, which include macaroni and cheese with a golden crust and a molten center; Kate makes the desserts, like the perfect espresso-cream cheese brownies. Where do local chefs go on their night off? Chez Pascal, where Matthew Gennuso, who bought the place in 2003 (and runs a hot dog cart across the street in summer), makes charcuterie for a meat-lover’s menu of French classics, matched with an oenophile’s wine list full of under-$40 finds.
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Most restaurants here are closed on Sundays, but I find the lights are on at Gracie’s, an eight-year-old spot that moved to its new location in 2005. Joseph Hafner, a Johnson & Wales cooking-school grad, offers three tasting menus and two dozen à la carte options, like sweetbreads with leeks and garlic puree. I eat my seven-course meal in an otherwise-empty room. It makes me feel like a mob boss.