Clamoring for some great Italian food, two foodies hit the road to to begin a day of exploring culinary delights on Federal Hill, the lively Italian section of Providence. Federal Hill offers a wealth of proudly crafted Italian-America food, fine imports from the Old Country and of course, Italian restaurants. Passing under the archway gracing the bottom of Atwells Avenue, we entered a different world. On this late Tuesday morning, gathered in every establishment with an espresso machine were weathered old men and couples sipping coffee, while chatting in Italian.
We began our day at the Scialo Brothers Bakery, easily spotted on the street by its flashy Deco facade and the Coach bag-shaped cake in the window. This bakery sticks mostly to the traditional sweets it has always made; chewy amaretti, maraschino-cherry-studded coconut macaroons, several varieties of biscotti, rainbow pound cake and tiramisu but tips a hat toward today’s trends, like the handbag craze. There wasn’t any of its famous hand-made torrone, the weather having been too warm to make the fickle treat, but that only gives us reason to return once the mercury drops.
With Scialo amaretti, macaroons and biscotti in hand, we then turned into DePasquale Square with its elaborate fountains that add a tad of Las Vegas-style glitz to the Hill. We spied another bakery, Palmieri’s, and dipped in for a look oohing and aahing over the scrumptious cannoli. Knowing we had already just polished off our first snack of the day, moved on without sampling another tasty morsel. Strolling out the door led us to notice Antonelli Poultry, where one can choose a live chicken, duck or rabbit and have it dispatched and dressed for dinner. Bringing home freshly killed protein wasn’t really on the agenda for the day, so we passed on that opportunity.
Purposely, we rounded the corner onto Spruce Street in search of Pastiche, an establishment known for its fine desserts. Entering its doorway we immediately felt the enveloping warmth and glow of this delightful bakery and cafe. The array of elegant, simple cakes graced with perfect buttercream, along with fruit and mousse pies and small goodies like macaroons, both plain and bedecked in chocolate, made it difficult for one to make a decision as which to share with a steaming cup of cappuccino. Slipping into a cozy booth and smitten with our choice of the toasty, chewy, honey flavor of the macaroons, we began strategizing the rest of the day.
Next stop: the bustle that is Constantino’s Venda Ravioli. Venda, as it’s popularly known, is dominated by its central oval-shaped deli, an island on which we should all be stranded. Packed with prepared foods, antipasti, meats and cheeses, the guys at the counter are happy to share all the details of this famed establishment. Offering a variety of house-made Italian sausages, using veal, pork, beef, and even chicken, the selection is quite impressive. However, the most popular is the sweet and spicy sausage made of pork butt with the traditional quartet of seasonings; fennel, black pepper, coriander and salt. A friendly old soul watching us enthusiastically peruse the counter, told us how he prepares his olives. Instructions were to buy an assorted mixture, wash them with water to remove some of the brine, then marinate them with just a little olive oil, a lot of oregano, some red pepper flakes and minced garlic.
At the back of the store are the eponymous ravioli, tortellini, spaghetti and gnocchi, all made by Venda. The debate as to which pasta to bring home for dinner was won by the broccoli rabe and pine nut ravioli. Contemplating whether or not to grab some marinara sauce, we decided these raviolis would taste best with just simple olive oil and grated parmesan cheese.
Down the street we found Tony’s Colonial Market, where soccer-ball-sized cheeses and whole legs of prosciutto, hang from the ceiling like edible disco balls. This market also has an offering of meat, cheese, olives, prepared foods like antipasto salad, mushrooms and other imported groceries but the selection of dried pasta was most impressive and drew us into a discussion with an employee as to which he considers the best, Rustichella d’ Abruzzo won the title hands down. Homemade breadsticks are what caught our eye in this establishment and after sampling a wine biscuit, chose three varieties of the bread sticks; plain, cheese, and fennel with black pepper, to add to our cachet.
The clock was ticking, so we headed back to our car for exploration of the East side of town, in particular Wayland Square. Here amongst a few quaint shops and restaurants in a largely residential neighborhood, we found Farmstead, a very attractive cheese shop and cafe. It’s sleek space is dominated by the cheese “cellar” which is actually a climate-controlled room generously fitted with large windows so that customers can view the wheels of cheese aging cozily on its shelves. We sampled two Vermont cheeses, Twig Tomme by Michael Lee and Ben Nevis from the Bonnieview Farm. Twig Tomme is a raw-milk goat cheese that has only the subtlest tang of goat, delicious even for someone who doesn’t like goat cheese. Ben Nevis is a raw-milk sheep’s cheese, creamy and a little sharp. Both would compliment any cheese platter.
Finishing our trek landed us at Olga’s Cup and Saucer, a bakery and cafe on Point Street. Olga’s was originally born as a small stand on a farm, incorporating produce from its agricultural backyard into its tarts, pies and pizzas. It continues that tradition today despite its urban location, using seasonal ingredients and selling its delicious wares at the local farmers’ markets. The luncheon menu of parsnip and pear puree soup, along with the pizza with butternut squash and gorgonzola looked fabulous and we rued the fact that we didn’t have time to sit down for a bite to eat.
Bags stuffed with our selection of Providence’s culinary goodies, we strolled back to the car and headed home, planning our Rhode Island ravioli dinner!