Once a resident of Providence, Rhode Island, David Latt returned decades later to discover a city that has been reborn, and a culinary scene that embraces its past while moving forward with modern cuisine.
If you lived in Providence when I did (in the mid-1970s), you would never go back.
In those days, the city was suffering the human equivalent of deep depression. Jobs were scarce. Downtown was dominated by the boarded-up Biltmore Hotel and a grimy Amtrak station.
If you wanted to eat out, your choices were pretty much restricted to Mafia-style Italian restaurants and food from diners like the Haven Brothers Diner in front of City Hall.
Downtown was revived by Buddy Cianci, the frequently indicted (and once jailed) and much-revered mayor of Providence, who convinced Amtrak to relocate so he could create a park in the center of the city. He tore up the streets that had paved over the Providence, Woonasquatucket, and Moshassuk Rivers and created a Venice-like system of canals that are used today by WaterFire, the summer festival that transforms the center of the city into a street fair of music, food, and pyrotechnics.
With the Rhode Island School of Design, its newly expanded Museum of Art, Trinity Repertory Company, and Brown University, the city offers more art per square foot than almost any other city, save maybe San Francisco. But what really works in Providence is that this southern New England city is truly manageable.
Learn about lighthouses in Rhode Island with this article: Learning While Traveling: Educational Trips for Adults.
And if you’re hungry, Providence will make you very happy.
You can enjoy uniquely Rhode Island foods by stopping at a neighborhood shop like Sal’s Bakery on Chalkstone Avenue and picking up a spinach pie or a pizza strip. They’re eaten cold although the pizza strips, which used to be a humble affair of simple baked pizza dough topped with spicy tomato sauce, are now available with thin slices of potato, cheese or basil.
Unless you’re a vegan, you have to try a New York-style hot dog, which is—notwithstanding the name—only found in Rhode Island. A generous helping of braised beef sits on top of a hot dog, with a smear of mustard and a generous dusting of raw onions and celery salt. Don’t drive by The Original New York System on Smith Street without running in for a plate of hot dogs and a glass of ice-cold coffee milk, another Rhode Island original.
Take an afternoon walk around DePasquale Plaza in Federal Hill, Providence’s Little Italy, and enjoy local baked treats like zeppoles (deep-fried dough balls) with a good espresso at Palmieri’s Bakery Cafe or go around the corner and stop at elegant, romantic Pastiche Fine Desserts & Café for a pot of tea and a slice of chocolate layer cake.
While you’re walking around Federal Hill, take a minute to join the crowds at Venda Ravioli where the display cases are packed full with olives, cheeses, cured meats, ready-made Italian deli favorites like stuffed peppers and snail salad, homemade pastas, freshly baked breads, gelato, and imported chocolates.
Among the restaurants, there are old favorites for those who know the city. Pot Au Feu and Al Forno show up in all the tourist guides because they sparked a change in the way Rhode Islanders ate. They are worth a visit but there are half a dozen others that should be at the top of your list the next time you’re passing through Southern New England.
Find out why Providence’s airport is one of America’s Best Alternate Airports.
In fact, I’ll hazard a guess that once you’ve eaten in Providence, you’ll think twice about making reservations in Boston. The food is as good or better. The prices competitive or cheaper, and it’s a lot easier getting around and parking in Providence than in Boston.
Stay tuned for part two of Rhode Island Renaissance, a spotlight on the chefs who have become an integral part of Providence’s food renaissance.
Related links on PeterGreenberg.com:
- 10 Top Cooking Schools, Gourmet Getaways & Learning Vacations for Foodies
- Ask the Locals Travel Guide: New London, Mystic & Mashantucket, Connecticut
- David Latt’s Ribs, Ribs & More Ribs: The Biggest Barbecue Cook-Off in the West
- Unexpected Foodie City: Houston, Texas
- Culinary Travel section
- America’s Best Alternate Airports