Monday, March 31, 2008

Providence Pizza -- some suggestions

Based on a series of recent posts on -- a great source of information for the food junkies in Providence -- and from a recent taste test between two pizzerias, we've come up with a short list of good places to grab a pizza.

Al Forno, 577 South Main street, Providence,

Bacaro, 262 South Water street, Providence,

Bob and Timmy's Pizza, 32 Spruce Street, Providence, ph: 453.2221

Campanella's, 930 Oaklawn avenue, Cranston, Ph: 943.3500

Caserta Pizza, 121 Spruce street, Providence, ph:272-3618

Feast or Famine, three locations: North Providence, Warren and Cranston;

Fellini Pizzeria, 166 Wickenden Street, Providence, ph: 751.6737;

Geppetto's Pizzeria, 57 Depasquale Plaza, Providence, ph: 270-3003

Neo's, 2244 Plainfield Pike, Johnston; ph: 942.4636

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Fellini's vs. Bob and Timmy's Pizza in Providence

Friday night, last night in fact, four of us ran our own side-by-side taste test of pizzas from two well-known pizzerias in Providence: Fellini's and Bob and Timmy's. My brother-in-law and his wife are keen on providence dining and drove down from Douglas, MA, to join us for our pizza experiment.

From Fellini's on Wickenden street we ordered their "Sweet Heaven" pizza, with bacon, ricotta cheese and scallions in a creamy parmesan sauce. From B & T we ordered a three mushroom pizza with portobello, crimini and shitake mushrooms, diced tomatoes and grilled yellow onions.

OK, first the basics.

The pizzas come in only one size: Fellini's specialty pizzas are 18-inch and cost $20. Bob and Timmy's specialty pies are about 14 inches and cost $15. Fellini's is traditional oven baked, B & T's are grilled. The Fellini's round pie was sliced in the typical pie shape, while the B & T square pie was (supposed to be) sliced in small squares/rectangles.

Both were ordered at the same time and were ready at the same time (about 20 minutes, early Friday night).

Both locations provided tables but one could certainly be safe in saying that take-out is the primary source of business.

Second, the comparison.

The ingredients in both were fresh and very tasty; the mushrooms in fact filled the kitchen with their earthy aromas as soon as the box was opened and the grilled onions on the B & T pie were just right, nicely al dente.

The Fellini pizza was equally tasty and the use of ricotta appealed to all four of us. (We are all used to making our own pizzas, both oven and grilled.) And their method of using bacon was tres cool indeed. They used entire strips (not bits or pieces) and they were cooked to perfection. The scallions I thought a nice touch, although the parmesan sauce escaped us.

The issue came down to the crust.

The Fellini crust was just right, held it's shape when picked up and had a nice texture to the bite.

The B & T pie was more like naan bread than pizza. It almost seemed as if it had not been cooked through, yet it looked fine when examined closely. It was very soft and doughy and, like I said reminded two of us of Indian naan bread. It made it very difficult to cut -- and in fact they had hardly cut it at all before boxing it.

The B & T crust really put off two others at the table who have spent the better part of the last 20 years grilling their own pizzas at home. I must admit that while I liked the flavor of the crust there was something fundamentally flawed about the crust and clearly they had not done something properly.

So the winner for the evening was clearly the Fellini pie.

Fellini Pizzeria, 166 Wickenden Street, ph: 751.6737;
Bob and Timmy's Pizza, 32 Spruce Street, ph: 453.2221

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Gracies, again and again

OK, OK so this is not technically about dining out -- but it is about going to a Providence restaurant. That's a start, right?

Also I would just point out that going to a restaurant to enjoy the ambiance and have a glass of wine at the bar, as we did on March 21 should count for something:

Or stopping in for the regular Wednesday wine flight tasting (three wines accompanied by a chef's tasting to compliment the wines), as we did on March 26 should also have some meaning:

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Asian markets in Providence

A quick google of "Asian markets in Providence" brings the typical plethora of useless links -- city guides or faux yellow pages orbiting in cyberspace -- although several gems hang there ripe for the picking. The "New Asian Market" on Broad street, Yang's" on Thayer, "Asian Star Market" on Elmwood or the "Sunny Market Place" on Reservoir Ave., all in Providence proper are likely candidates for finding Asian groceries.

I've tried Asiana Market on Warren and found it clean but small with a large dose of Japanese specialty items and some produce at very nice prices. (Napa cabbage for example at 20-30 cents cheaper than the grocery chains.), I've also visited Mekong Seafood on Broad street. I thought the place smelled terrible, was very dark and seemed to focus on very little outside of Southeast Asia. Word is they are known for their seafood but I can't vouch for that. I must say, however, I found it refreshing to watch the Asian butcher speaking in Spanish with the Hispanic customers (in fact, except for me all the customers there were hispanic or latino) -- rather reminded me of Paris.

As for the local Whole Food stores in Providence they have little more variety than say Stop 'n Shop, although of course they do carry a number of organic Asian products naturally.

The simple fact, for me at any rate, is most "Asian" stores do not stock a wide variety of those Chinese condiments that I have grown particularly fond of over the years: bean sauces (spicy or garlic or black, you name it), hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, chili sauces, almost anything by the Lee Kum Kee group for example. (Maybe I got spoiled living so close to Chinatown in paris.)

Well a quick modification of my google search, substituting the word "chinese" for "asian" market and I soon learn that there is but one store listed in all of the greater Providence: the "Chinese American Mini Market" on Park avenue in Cranston.

So the other day I jumped in the car and, with fingers crossed and expectations high, I headed off for Cranston.

Talk about exceeding expectations!

As I pulled off of Rte. 10 onto Reservoir Avenue my eye immediately caught sight of an Asian market right at the end of the exit ramp. I quickly pulled into the parking lot at the rear of the building, walked around to the front and found the door locked -- but the hours posted said they were open. And so they were. A woman came and unlocked the door and ushered me inside the tiny shop. Less than 30 seconds later I came face-to-face with a long shelf lined with nothing but, you guessed it, Lee Kum Kee products! I was ecstatic!

I began grabbing first the spicy bean sauce, then the plain bean sauce, then the black bean with garlic, and then the hoisin sauce, on and on it went until I had an armload of condiments.

All of which came to barely twenty bucks.

I had discovered H & P Food Service Co. Located at 445 Reservoir Rd., I had no idea they were there of course. What a find!

From there I headed off to the Chinese American Mini Market just five minutes away, in the shadow of the Cranston city hall.

I have no idea as to where the idea came from to call this a "mini" market -- it is of course not that at all. This is one of the largest Asian markets I have seen since living in Paris. The place is HUGE inside with several walls of cold and frozen Asian stuff, piles and piles of massive bags of rice and several walls of just noodles, packaged in every size, shape and variation imaginable, from ready-to-heat 'n serve to plain dried noodles. If you are a serious noodle person this is a one-stop shopping mecca for you.

And the sheer volume of Korean products was overwhelming -- row upon row of Korean and Chinese newspapers that greeted me as I entered should have warned me I was in a wholly different world now. They also advertise themselves as a major purveyor of Filipino and Japanese products as well, but I can't attest to that.

And of course the condiments: the oils, vinegars, spices and seemingly limitless amount of stuff for you to put in your food is astounding. And Kikkoman even got their own shelf space, there had so many products on display.

I will say that the prices on Lee Kum Kee was, I think, a bit lower at H & P -- but I certainly didn't undertake a serious comparative study.

If you are a serious aficionado of Chinese and Korean food and are looking for those hard-to-find items, head on over to H & P at 445 Reservoir or Chinese American Mini Market at 834 Park in Cranston

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A peek behind the curtain at Gracie's

Now for some the restaurant business is, well, just that: a business. Like any other business people come to work, open the doors, let the customers in, provide a product or service for which they are paid, and say goodbye as the customers leave.

Well, actually in some restaurants it's a bit more complicated than that. In fact, the hard work and attention to detail in getting ready to serve an exquisitely prepared meal to total strangers requires a choreography of mind and spirit before the candles are lit and the doors unlocked.

Some weeks back I had the opportunity to observe the staff of Gracie's setting up for dinner.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A future for cork?

I admit it, this doesn't have anything to say about dining in Providence per se. But then it sort of does.

What I mean is that if we assume wine to be a part of the dining experience -- and if you don't I'm terribly sorry, believe me -- if we take wine as a crucial component of the dining experience then you'll grant me this one exception I'm sure.

OK, so I recently stopped at Campus Wines on Brook Street, just off of Wickenden Street on the East Side of Providence, the area euphemistically known as the "Left Bank." I had never been there before but Brendan, the wine guy at Gracie's mentioned Campus Wines to me one evening as a good local source for wines and suggested I check them out. And since I'm always on the hunt for certain items, not to mention looking for the best value in the greater Providence area, I thought I would drop by.

A friendly young man named Evan suggested a few wines and kindly answered several questions I had as I wended my way through the various aisles. One of the wines he recommended was a delicious white from Sicily, Insolia and here I had my first glimpse of one possible future replacement for the wine cork: glass.

I cannot begin to tell you how cool this is: the thing comes right out of the bottle and yet can go right back in and serve as a stopper! Whoa! This is what a truly liberated imagination can do for you.

And then less than two weeks later I'm at a wine tasting at Gracie's, just this past Wednesday in fact, and one of the wines was an Alsatian white with, you guessed it! A glass wine stopper!

I've seen the future and it works.

So go and check out Campus Wines, 127 Brook Street. Or visit their website:

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Broadway Bistro -- 17 March 2008

We don't seem to get out much these days -- although that's probably not as true as I think. Anyway, we cook at lot at home. In the past, when we lived in Vermont there wasn't much opportunity to find really good food, at least not close by our home in Rutland. There was Little Harry's and Three Tomatoes downtown and then Cafe Provence opened in Brandon -- but six or eight or ten miles on Route 7 in Vermont can prove daunting, particularly in winter.

In Paris it was, needless to say, quite the opposite. We had what seemed an endless variety of dining opportunities available within walking distance, certainly within Metro distance. But with Susan experimenting at home with her newfound baking techniques and my own brand of experimenting, particularly with Asian food since I was almost cheek-by-jowl to some of the world's finest Asian markets, we didn't eat out that often even in Paris.

Then comes Providence. Or rather we come to Providence, New England's food capital. There is very little here in the way of the textile industries or major manufacturing, and in fact those days are pretty much gone everywhere in this part of the country. Mills are being turned into condos everywhere you look -- a pretty good thing in my estimation -- and the general trend here in Providence is toward the cerebral industries: technologies, education and, need I say it: food.

Walking from, say City Hall and Kennedy Plaza downtown in nearly any direction will bring you to any one of a half dozen damn good places to eat. There are places of distinction serving haute cuisine in enveloping atmospheres seeking to provide the ultimate dining experience to small cafes and bistros eager to just serve a plate of good soup or chili or a sandwich.

Well we recently discovered a place that probably falls somewhere in between these two extremes: Broadway Bistro (that's the entrance in the photo; go ahead and look up.)

As you might expect, this is located on Broadway, just a few blocks west of I-95 and along our walking route downtown. And it is just that: a bistro. After we sat down at a 2-top in the small but cozy dining room with a long bar at the far wall, we were both struck at just how much it felt like a small cafe in Paris.

The service was smooth and friendly, in fact one young woman handled everything out front: waiting on tables, tending the bar, you name it. And she did it easily and effortlessly. The kitchen is small but easily observed on the right side of the far wall and you can informally poke your head in and say hi.

The wine list is short but sweet -- Susie and I started off with a glass of prosecco and, since we both had fish for dinner we each had a glass of Santa Barbara chardonnay. And speaking of dinner Susan had the salmon, pan-seared to perfection on a bed of delicious shredded veggies and rice, and I had the fish 'n chips: a perfectly done, hefty piece of lightly battered cod that was moist and juicy; the chips were indeed what we Yanks call chips but the Brits call crisps. Whatever you call them they were homemade and exquisite bites of potato that complimented the cod very well indeed.

I couldn't help but notice this month in both Rhode Island Monthly and the latest issue of the Providence Phoenix, the restaurant reviewers focused on Loie Fuller (yes, yes I know it's pronounced Low Fuller), which, curiously enough is right across the street from our apartment but we haven't eaten there -- yet. The lines have simply been too long. So along comes something a little different for you without having to wait: the Broadway Bistro. The decor isn't art nouveau but it is very Parisian, the food is worth the trip, the service right on the money and the music is very eclectic and quite enjoyable.

Broadway Bistro, 205 Broadway. Go and go now.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Michele De Luca-Verley of la maison de COCO

Over the past decade or so Rhode Island has developed a reputation for being home to some of the most innovative and imaginative chefs in the Northeast if not the United States.

While Providence is the lynchpin of this culinary revolution, with places like Gracie’s, Olga’s, Al Forno, Nick’s on Broadway and many others leading the way, out in the quiet Rhode Island countryside another revolution is underway.

Not as visible perhaps but no less important for Rhode Island’s future are the “culinary entrepreneurs,” those artisans working out of their homes or in small shops, producing delectable treats for sale in local shops or directly from the producer.

One such artisan is chocolatier Michele De Luca-Verley of Portsmouth.

Chef Joe Hafner of Gracie's told me about Michele and her chocolates. I had asked Joe if he knew of any pastry chefs in the area who might be willing to talk about their work for an article I was doing on pastry chefs in Rhode Island for Prime Time magazine. Michele was the first name that came to mind.

I called her and asked if we could arrange to meet and talk about her work. A couple of days later I got a chance to spend an hour or so chatting with her about food in general and chocolate in particular. The highlight for me was watching as she made her wonderful tea-infused chocolate truffles and listening to her talk about her love of food, and chocolate in particular.

Michele was born in Rhode Island but as a young girl moved away, traveling the world, living in Italy and then France, where she fell in love and married.

She returned to the US and after living in New York City and Boston she returned to Rhode Island with her husband and children and found a quiet house in the peaceful countryside outside of Portsmouth.

Self-taught in the culinary art of making chocolate Michele has become something of a magician: she takes a thing as simple as chocolate and then infuses it with tea to make incredibly delicious truffles. It’s the ingredients that make the difference she told me; it’s the ingredients. . .

I asked her when she first discovered her love of cooking. Like so many others, the love of cooking came out of a deep abiding infatuation with the love of good food.

She told me that having been raised by a mother who always cooked with fresh ingredients and never from a can, she came to appreciate quality food from an early age.

At the time TV dinners were all the rage but we would never think of it in our home. We ate breakfast and dinners as a family. My mother made sauce for pasta using fresh tomatoes, basil, and garlic from my Grandmother's recipe. I grew up visiting and celebrating Sunday dinner at my Italian Grandmother's house every Sunday that would last for the entire afternoon. I also had a grandmother on my mother's side of the family who was of German descent and was always planning the next meal before we had finished the last one, again using fresh produce and meats. This emphasis on celebrating food with family set the stage for my love of food. I was also fortunate enough as a young child to spend summers in Italy. I was at a very impressionable age and well . . . let's say when they put granita di caffe con panna and a fresh brioche in front of me for breakfast I was taken.

OK, but where did she get her inspiration for such incredible chocolates?

My inspiration comes from the beauty of the agriculture that surrounds us in Rhode Island...sun-drenched berries, fresh eggs from the farmer down the road, local cream, scented with grass. My initial country of inspiration was France. While living there I was intrigued by the creativity and perfection of the pastry chefs. I began to think of my own pastries as canvases to express my own creativity. Being of Italian origin I must also include the inspiration I draw from the simplicity and from this simplicity an elegance of Italian pastry. I would much rather tumble fresh berries on top of a fruit tart than arrange them in neat rows as the French are more apt to do. It is this ease of expression and of life that Italians inherently possess which inspires me.

Since I’m married to a pastry chef I was eager to hear what Michele thought was the most difficult dessert she’s ever had to make. “Why a wedding cake!” she told me. “Baking and assembling a wedding cake is an art form unto itself and one that is too nerve-racking for me. I break out into a sweat whenever anyone mentions it to me.”

Of course, now I had to know what was the easiest dessert to make. “I would have to say that I love the simplicity and final result of making tarts if we are talking about pastry. Of course my passion and love is making tea-infused truffles.”

Regarding chocolate, I then asked her what is her favorite chocolate dessert to make? The answer was not surprising:

Truffles. But if I were to translate this into the pastry dessert realm, I would say a Coco Pastry shell filled with tea-infused ganache and topped with pile of fresh berries.

Wow! Tea-infused ganache! She started speaking my language that’s for sure.

Well, it was bound to happen when you get two people together who love to talk about food. The time flies by. I had already stayed longer than I had planned and didn’t want to impose on her time any longer. But there was one more question I had to ask:

What do you think is the greatest challenge facing pastry chefs today? Her answer was right to the point.

I think the greatest challenge for pastry chefs and chefs in general is just keeping everything simple. Sometimes I think adding in so many flavors to our plates just because we have access to them, diffuses the magnificence and the sublime beauty of just two or three flavors playing with the palate.

Keep it simple; flavorful, delicious and simple. Sounds good to me.

Ciao for now,

Steve Soper

la maison de COCO
Durfee Tea House
82 Glen Road
Portsmouth, RI 02871
Phone: 401 293 0524

Saturday, March 15, 2008

OK so I've changed the name

I think the change was overdue; don't you?

After all, my focus now is primarily on food sold, served, produced or otherwise passed along in the greater Providence area. Along the way I will probably throw in a visit or two to restaurants or markets outside of the Ocean State but that's the risk we run.



Sunday, March 9, 2008

Nick's on Broadway, a third time

Well we went back to Nick's this beautiful Sunday morning. Susie had a hamsteak sandwich on whole wheat and I had Eggs Benedict with steak. (Trust me this was way better than my lousy photograph.) The eggs were poached to perfection, at least for my taste -- I asked for a hard poach -- and the steak was delicious and cooked just right. Nick's home fries are the best I've ever had, such a tasty combination of sweet and regular potatoes.

There's just no getting around the fact that Nick's is one damn fine place to eat, breakfast or dinner. If you're going for breakfast I urge you to get there early. We arrived a little before nine -- hey it's a three-block walk for us -- and there was no waiting. A half later later and the queuing had already begun.

Oh, and I want to say that the service has always been friendly, professional and knowledgeable. In fact Sharon has waited on us twice and she writes nothing down. I'm not sure any of them do actually.


Saturday, March 8, 2008

Hard working kids

The next time you see a group of young people sauntering down the street, heads bobbing this way and that, baseball caps all askew, baggy pants hanging around their shins, listening to hip hop music so loud their ears are bleeding, well the next time you see such a group and say to yourself, what has become of the hard working youth I have just one word for you: restaurant.

That's right sports fans. The next time you are out at your favorite eatery take a look behind the curtain, take a peek in the back room and my guess is you'll find those young folks working their butts to the bone.

I've watched one such kitchen close up now for about two months and I must tell you what I have observed is truly astounding.

The work ethic these kids have today would put most other professions to shame. They work long hours, and they work hard. These kids are reliable, trustworthy and just get about their job. Period. No whining, no complaining, just quiet intensity of effort.

Watch one of these kitchens sometime: it is as Patrick Gilgallon once explained it to me, an exercise in choreography to be sure but more than that. The focus is intense, the willingness to go above and beyond the proverbial call of duty commonplace. The handshakes are firm and the smiles genuine.

A great way to start out your life I should think.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Pastry Chef at Gracie's

OK, OK so it's not big surprise for most of you -- Susie is the pastry chef of Gracie's.

But I'll bet you didn't know that besides being interviewed recently by the food writer of the Providence Journal (known locally as the ProJo), she was also asked a few questions by food blogger Stephanie Obodda.

If you want to read the interview, just go straight to Stephanie's blog. Or cut and paste the following link:

As for me, I just want my dad back. . .



Sunday, March 2, 2008

Wednesday wine flight at Gracie's

Wednesday we had a pleasant evening -- after a long day for Susie we went back into town, to Gracie's for the weekly wine flight -- this week it was three "Supertuscans" matched with three small tasting portions of some of Chef Joe's spectacular food. We weren't disappointed on either score. The wines were very nice: Argiano from Montalcino, Piocaia and Fattoria Di San Fabbiano both from near Arezzo. The food also matched well: raw tuna, duck confit and a delicious smoked polenta.

We had originally planed to do the wine flight and then go to a nearby Cuban restaurant for dinner (in honor of Fidel's retirement I suppose). Anyway, we soon found ourselves in a groove sitting at the bar at Gracie's, warm and comfortable, with smooth music playing around our ears and so decided to, well, just eat at the bar. And so we did.

We each had the Maytag salad (chock full of wonderful Maytag blue) topped with several of Gracie's homemade potato chips. We followed that with Chef Joe's homemade gnocchi (way to go Cara) topped with wonderful, earthy mushrooms. Our wine was a well-matched pinot noir from Louis Latour.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Chocolate, Chocolat, Coco, Cioccolata

The one extra day that we give ourselves every four years turned out to be packed with a couple of curious surprises, pleasantly curious I must say.

So I'm putting the finishing touches on an article about pastry chefs in Rhode Island that I'm writing for Primetime magazine. I asked Chef Joe Hafner of Gracie's if he had any suggestions for me and he gave me a couple of good leads; indeed he was kind enough to make a call to Michele De Luca-Verley, an incredible chocolatier who runs her business out of her home in Portsmouth, RI.

I called Michele and arranged to come by to chat and take some photos of her at work.

After spending an hour or so with her it was clear that self-taught Michelle has grown her business through the force of her gentle personality and the quality of her chocolate: her truffles are fantastic and her smile contagious. Here are just a few of the photos I took yesterday:

A curious twist came when that evening we watched our latest movie from NetFlix -- Chocolat!

Is that just too cool or what?

And to top it all off we had a delicious pan-seared skirt steak in a red wine sauce -- thanks Chef Joe!

Ciao for now,