By Brian Jewell
After spending a couple of days in Providence, I understood that this town takes its food seriously. From the famed culinary school at Johnson and Wales University to the 62 restaurants on Federal Hill, there’s something delicious waiting to be discovered nearly everywhere you look.
“Providence is a really interesting food city,” said Kristen Adamo, vice president of marketing and communications at the Providence Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau. “You’ve got Johnson and Wales, plus all these ethnic groups and seafood from Narragansett Bay.
“Put it all together, and you have one of the strongest culinary cities in the United States.”
The culinary arts program at Johnson and Wales University is one of the most prestigious in the region, and graduates such as Emeril Lagasse have gone on to cook in some of the world’s most prestigious kitchens.
The school esteems cuisine so much that it has erected a Culinary Arts Museum on campus, showcasing thousands of culinary artifacts.
On a tour of the museum, groups will see an exhibit of the pantheon of great chefs from Rhode Island, as well as some of the uniforms and signature tools. Also on display are chefs’ coats, photographs and cookbooks belonging to Julia Child, and culinary artifacts from ancient China, Egypt, Rome and Greece.
Galleries at the museum highlight the development of food culture in Rhode Island throughout history; there’s a re-created 1837 tavern, a country fair, a 1940s home kitchen and a replica of a classic diner that originated in Providence more than 100 years ago.
Along the way, visitors learn about Rhode Island food favorites such as quahog clams and coffee milk.
If touring the museum makes you hungry, take heart: You’re not far from Federal Hill, a neighborhood traditionally populated by immigrant groups that has become the city’s culinary cornerstone. I took a culinary tour of Federal Hill with chef Cindy Salvato, who operates a company called Savoring Rhode Island.
We started at Scialo Brothers Bakery, a traditional Italian bakery where one family has created bread, cakes and cookies in a brick oven for nearly 100 years. During a tour, groups can sample a platter of signature handmade items such as biscotti, wine biscuits and sfogliatelle, a traditional Italian pasty filled with lemon cream.
Next, we visited Roma, a grocery store with beautiful meats, fresh pastas and imported olive oils, and Tony’s Colonial Food, where the proprietor offered us a taste of melt-in-your-mouth prosciutto.
From there, we visited Constantino’s Venda Ravioli, a large Italian market and restaurant, where we sampled delicious cheeses and pickled peppers stuffed with mozzarella and prosciutto balls.
As if that weren’t enough, Salvato took me to lunch at Zooma, a neighborhood Italian restaurant where we ordered pan-fried fresh calamari, brick-oven pizza and a trio of pastas.
The rich bolognese, pillowy gnocchi and intricate sacchettini — a pasta stuffed with cheese and mushrooms — were an overwhelming feast of flavor that may be the next best thing to Italy.