The Little Inn
Coming through when it counts
by Bill Rodriguez
103 Putnam Pike (Route 44), Johnston, 231-0570
Open Tues-Fri, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sat & Sun, 4-10 p.m.
Major credit cards
There we were, hungry, harried. We had just spent more than an hour rattling
around the edges of darkest Blackstone Valley, looking for a good restaurant.
The first place was a madhouse with an hour wait, the second was too smoky, and
the third's menu was too nondescript. With all that time and trouble we weren't
about to settle for anything mediocre, even though the Golden Arches would have
looked mighty tempting at that point. Then two of our party of four came up
with the same idea: How about The Little Inn? It had a good rep, they agreed.
With a drum roll in the background, we turned toward Johnston.
Both the parking lot and the waiting room were packed that Saturday night --
good sign. During the 15-minute wait before being seated, we perused a
collection of lacquered plaques made from wooden wine cases. Proud of their
wine list -- promising. Wine-related certificates of the proprietors, Harold
Russo Sr. and Jr., were also on display. But the defining touch about the
place's aspirations, if not accomplishments, was a signed photo, nearly out of
sight behind the coat rack. It read: "To my good friend Harold. Sincerely,
Frank." Beaming out was a clearly well-fed Chairman of the Board.
Let the drum roll cease. Let the slowly building applause commence. The Little
Inn not only huffs and puffs and thinks it can, it actually can provide a
thoroughly enjoyable dining experience. Far from the chichi boîtes and
bistros of Providence, it's an unpretentious ruby in the rough. Now, any decent
restaurant can impress when it hits its stride. It's the off nights that are
the real test. And on this night the kitchen was in apparent turmoil, with one
of the chefs in Aruba, an off-menu party in another room and heaven knows what
else. Yet, with some understandable qualifications, we -- and the restaurant --
The dining room is large, with Tiffany-style lampshades and antiquey
tchotchkes on wall shelves, and even though it was packed, we could converse in
normal voices. Our party lucked out and we were seated next to a blazing
fireplace, so the place seemed downright cozy.
But the main reason we felt so comfortable was the service we got from our
attentive waitress, Joann -- an 18-year veteran -- even as she grew
increasingly busy over the evening. For example, when one of us registered a
disappointed "oh" at news that the balsamic vinaigrette was no longer
available, she said she would blend some fresh. We knew we were in good
Our appetizers gave evidence of that as well. Wood-grilled pizza ($8.95) was
loaded with portobello slices, roasted red peppers and asparagus, and its
potato-flour crust was flavorful on its own. One of our party always orders
calamari, and the traditional Little Inn version ($7.95) -- batter-fried,
pepper rings -- was pronounced "very good" by that authority. There are plenty
choices of wines by the glass, and most of the bottles are under $20.
The main dishes were also delicious, although some secondary concerns cost
points. I don't know about you, but I think that undeclared substitutions in a
dish should be punished by eternity in an elevator in which none of the buttons
correspond to the floors. The wood-grilled veal tenderloins ($14.95) instead
appeared to be rib cuts, but they were tender and delicious (although the
accompanying risotto could have used further cooking). Potentially of more
concern was the bucatini ($15.95), fat, hollow spaghetti-like strands that,
according to the menu, were supposed to come with pan-seared sea scallops.
Well, the fresh fennel and tomatoes and the lemony sauce worked well, although
the giant New Zealand mussels traded size for tenderness. But four jumbo shrimp
showed up instead of the advertised scallops. As it turned out, the latter were
delicious and quite welcome -- but liking scallops doesn't necessarily
translate into liking shrimp. Irate customers have been created from less.
On the other side of the table, the "farm-raised" salmon ($13.95) was a large
fillet, grilled with restraint, in a delicate champagne and butter sauce, and
much appreciated. My papardelle ($13.95) was a concoction worthy of being a
signature dish. Between the wide pasta and the fresh mozzarella melted on top
was a slightly spicy-hot tomato sauce, full of capers for tang, plus artichoke
hearts, crumbled sweet sausage and pieces of breaded chicken breast. I couldn't
get enough of it.
We all saved room to share orders of lemon mousse ($4.95). Macerated fresh
raspberries provided a tart-on-tart complement, rather than a sugary contrast.
The Little Inn will be on my mind in the future when I'm in the area with an
appetite. Who knows -- the next visit might find the larder completely stocked,
the kitchen fully staffed, and recipes from Aruba on the menu.