When I recently asked a friend from Rhode Island where I should eat in Providence, he looked at me with a self-satisfied smirk and said, "How much time do you have?" Not too many years ago, about five minutes would have sufficed; the city was, gastronomically speaking, a backwater. There were a handful of Italian American red-sauce palaces up on Federal Hill and a hodgepodge of coffee shops and sandwich shacks over on College Hill, and that was about it.
But lately things have changed. By the time I made the 60-minute drive down to Providence from my home in Boston, my friend and a few other knowledgeable locals had recommended about 10 newish places--a considerable number in a city of 160,000, and nothing short of remarkable if you know how troubled Providence used to be. For decades the capital of the nation's smallest state was one of the most forlorn towns in the Northeast. In the Nineties, though, Providence underwent a transformation that has made it a model for urban turnarounds everywhere, and the burgeoning dining scene is a big part of that story.
"When I first moved here, in the late 1960s, there was very little going on," Johanne Killeen recalls. "Even in the Seventies, Providence was at the end of the food chain." In 1980 Killeen and her husband, George Germon, opened Al Forno (577 S. Main St.; 401-273-9760), which quickly became the city's preeminent restaurant. George and Johanne, as nearly everyone in Providence calls them, are the godparents of the local cooking scene. Al Forno has long been a training ground for ambitious young chefs, but for years most of them went on to careers in Boston, New York and Los Angeles. Only recently have a few of those chefs decided to stay in town. Today it's hard to find a kitchen here that doesn't employ someone who once worked at Al Forno.
Two of Germon and Killeen's star alumni are Eric Moshier and Loren Falsone; both were named among F&W's Best New Chefs 2000. The couple cooked at Al Forno for seven years, and they even held their wedding reception on its patio. At their restaurant, Empire (123 Empire St.; 401-621-7911), across from the home of the acclaimed Trinity Repertory Company, the innovative Italian cooking is as contemporary as the decor. (The space was designed by Germon, who, along with Killeen, is a partner in the restaurant.) Empire's pork pizzaiola is braised to a melting tenderness in tomato sauce; seafood brodetto is gently stewed in saffron-scented white wine broth. Baked-to-order desserts are Moshier's forte. Brown sugar tart and lemon curd-stuffed crêpes crowned with meringue are equally divine. And if Empire's thin-crust pizza is reminiscent of the famous version at Al Forno, Moshier and Falsone will be the first to acknowledge the influence.
Not all Germon and Killeen's protégés work in the couple's Italian idiom. Neath Pal, who was born in Cambodia and trained in France before cooking at Al Forno, prepares deceptively simple Asian dishes with deep dimensions of flavor at Neath's (262 S. Water St.; 401-751-3700). Inside this old warehouse beside the newly rerouted and cleaned-up Providence River, Pal presides over a vast open kitchen beside a dining room painted Froot Loop colors. He takes local lobster and braises it in coconut milk, red curry sauce and Cognac, then serves it over ribbons of chow fun noodles, and he seasons grilled chicken breast with lemongrass before presenting it on shredded green papaya, carrots and Thai basil.
As the French Cambodian fusion at Neath's shows, the Al Forno influence doesn't explain everything that's happening in Providence these days. What else, I wonder, could be behind the restaurant boom? I go to see Olga Bravo at Olga's Cup & Saucer (103 Point St.; 401-831-6666), a three-year-old breakfast and lunch place inside a former gas station where you can stuff yourself silly with calzones and pizzas, risotto and comfort desserts, and get out for under $10. Bravo, the chef and owner, argues that one important factor in the ascent of the local dining scene is the rising quality of Rhode Island's native produce. Before she opened her place in the city, Bravo sold tarts and other pastries in a tiny roadside bakery in Little Compton, using corn and fruits grown nearby on Rhode Island's Heritage Farm Coast. This micro-region is compared by its devotees to Napa Valley because of its family farms and fledgling vineyards.
Bravo, along with everyone else I meet, tells me that Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci, Jr., also deserves much of the credit. Cianci, a larger-than-life figure who has been elected to six terms in City Hall (briefly interrupted by his forced resignation after a brush with scandal in the Eighties), has energetically reshaped the city. An unabashed foodie who markets his own coffee, olive oil and pasta sauce--MOMS, or the Mayor's Own Marinara Sauce--he brought a dying downtown back to life, in part by offering development loans for new restaurants.
One of the beneficiaries is XO Café (125 N. Main St.; 401-273-9090), a cross-cultural bistro tucked into the first floor of a 200-year-old building. Chef Jules Ramos is a native of the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde, but his menu draws inspiration from around the world. A bento box of appetizers--lobster-and-mascarpone dumplings, asparagus tempura, fried squid and skewers of chicken satay--is almost too lovely to disturb. Pumpkin seed-crusted salmon is paired with a charred-tomato coulis, whose smokiness counters the richness of the fish.
Ramos tries to explain why the level of cooking in Providence has come so far in such a short time. "The city puts itself on the line for us, and every chef here feels a responsibility," he tells me. "You can no longer serve just anything in this town and get away with it." That may be the final reason for Providence's rebirth as a food town: The chefs simply willed it to happen, and it did.
Mat Schaffer reviews restaurants for the Boston Herald.