Providence has a sturdy Italian heritage, resulting in a profusion of tomato-sauce and pizza joints, especially on Federal Hill, the city's "Little Italy" west of downtown and I-95. That identity is starting to change, with an influx of more international shops and restaurants, but a stroll along the main drag of the district, Atwells Avenue between Bradford and Sutton, can set off furious hunger alarms, satisfied by a stop at Costantino's Venda Ravioli, 265-275 Atwells Ave. (tel. 401/421-9105; www.vendaravioli.com). It started out as a simple retail pasta store but has expanded into a little empire of prepared foods, an espresso bar, large cheese and meat sections, packaged Italian specialties, and cafe tables inside and out on the terrace.
One fruitful strip to explore for lower-cost dining options is that part of Thayer Street bordering the Brown University campus. It counts Thai, Tex-Mex, barbecue, and Indian restaurants among its possibilities.
Providence claims the invention of the diner, starting with a horse-drawn wagon transporting food down Westminster Street in 1872. The tradition is carried forward by the likes of the Seaplane Diner, 307 Allens Ave. (tel. 401/941-9547), a silver-sided classic with tableside jukeboxes, and Richard's Diner, 377 Richmond St. (tel. 401/331-8541), so small you can walk across it in six strides.
A bona fide National Historic Landmark is an unlikely venue for snarfing up cookies, souvlaki, and egg rolls, but The Arcade, 65 Weybosset St. (tel. 401/598-1199), is a 19th-century progenitor of 20th-century shopping malls, an 1828 Greek Revival structure that runs between Weybosset and Westminster streets. Its main floor is given over largely to fast-food stands and snack counters of the usual kinds -- yes, the Golden Arches, too -- while the upper floor is primarily boutiques and souvenir shops.
Another local culinary institution arrives in Kennedy Plaza on wheels every afternoon around 4:30pm. The grungy aluminum-sided Haven Bros. (tel. 401/861-7777) is a food tractor-trailer with a counter and six stools inside and good deals on decent burgers and even better fries sold from its parking space next to City Hall. No new frontiers here, except that it hangs around until way past midnight to dampen the hunger pangs of club-goers, lawyers, night people, and workaholic pols.
Big Tastes Hide in Little Rhody
You'd think, in an age of instant communication, that no ingratiatingly flavorful edible tidbit or preparation would stay unknown for long. Worthy regional specialties fast become national staples -- think Buffalo wings, Carolina blooming onions, Texan burritos. But Rhode Islanders are tightfisted about their food secrets, and even residents of neighboring states are in the dark. So while you're visiting, try to check out some of the following:
- Rhode Island clam chowder is a clear broth, neither tomato- nor cream- based, as are, respectively, the far better-known Manhattan and New England versions.
- Stuffies come in as many versions as there are cooks. At Flo's Clam Shack in Newport, big quahog clams are chopped up with hot and sweet peppers and bread crumbs, packed inside the two shell halves, and shut, the whole held together by a rubber band and baked. The mixture assumes the consistency of setting plaster but is no less tasty for that.
- Johnnycakes (also known as jonnycakes) are breakfast fodder, some as thin as crepes, others as thick as standard griddlecakes. The difference from the conventional pancakes is the primary ingredient, cornmeal. Honey is a common topping.
- Clam cakes are as inaccurately named as Brooklyn egg creams (which have neither eggs nor cream). These aren't cakes, but deep-fried fritters, and the clams therein are notable primarily for their virtual absence.
- Coffee milk and cabinets are the obligatory beverages to go with Rhody chow. The first is made with sweet coffee syrup, while the second is what the rest of America thinks of as a milkshake.
- New York System Wieners have only a passing acquaintance with Big Apple franks. In Rhode Island, the wieners are short -- 3 or 4 inches long -- served on soft steamed buns and topped (usually) with a chili-type meat sauce, minced onion, and mustard. Nobody eats just one -- the typical ration is four or more.
So step up to the counter and demand "Four all the way, extra sauce, and a coffee milk." You thus commence your initiation into the mysteries of the Rhode Island food culture. And did we mention Gray's Ice Cream?
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.