[Sidebar] January 20 - 27, 2000
[Food Reviews]
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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
No access

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 -- did fine.

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 hands.

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. Nice touch.

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.

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