[Sidebar] April 20 - 27, 2000
[Food Reviews]
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AquaViva Eurobistro

That's tapas bar, tapas

by Bill Rodriguez

286 Atwells Ave., Providence, 273-8664
Open Tues-Sat, 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m., Sun, 4-10 p.m.
Major credit cards
Sidewalk access

Don't unpack your bags if you're about to take off for Madrid. But if one of your inducements is the tapas bar, a visit to AquaViva Eurobistro may very well satisfy your gastronomic search, if not your wanderlust. We now have the opportunity to go beyond bacalao, past paella. Restaurateur Walter Potenza, who upped the sophistication of Italian cuisine on Federal Hill with clay pot cookery and Italian-Jewish recipes at La Locanda del Coccio, is prompting widespread and rousing olés.

First, a little background. Tapas, called pinchos or pintxox in Basque boîtes, started out in Spain as bar snacks. Tapar means to cover, as in serving a drink with a saucer over it, to keep away flies. Free snacks were placed on top, and eventually bars were competing, and charging, to serve more elaborate appetizers. Sometimes, they're mini-versions of entrées, sometimes even simpler. There's a tradition of groups of friends strolling about to several tapas bars, ordering a round of sherry and snacks at each. As with dim sum, customers will point to specific dishes that look appetizing.

Stepping into AquaViva is to enter a futuristic version of Hemingway's clean, well-lighted place, with no Franco sympathizers in evidence. A cylindrical air duct says chic industrial-modern, but it's painted a soft moss green. The motif continues, with chrome tubular chairs and a metal floral wall decoration. Posters of Spain are suspended from the high ceiling. Above the curving bar -- another softening touch -- is a large metal plate patterned like a truck running board; the fork and spoon shapes cut out of it hang across the room, on the brick wall by the entrance. Light floods in from two stories of street-front windows. Spanish songs and flamenco guitar fill the air.

We liked the centerpiece on our table: a stack of small plates. Inviting. With Johnnie and me were a couple of friends. As it happened, they'd been to Barcelona, done the tapas crawl, and could put the place in perspective for us.

The bar serves 10 specialty martinis, including a bizarre concoction, garnished with shaved chocolate, that uses creme de cacao instead of vermouth. Chocoholics take note. There are also 23 bottled beers, and nearly 20 wines. No sherries, unfortunately. However, tasting arrays of white or red wines, in three or four three-ounce servings, are available, priced at $5 and $6.25. I ordered a "flight" of both white and red, and I wasn't disappointed.

We thought it made sense to start with the cold tapas and move on to the hot. There are more than a dozen of the first and two dozen of the latter. Most run from $6 to $10, with the occasional $5 (soup) or $13 (lobster ravioli). As with the hot dishes, several offerings are Italian, such as a Tuscan bruschetta, topped with white beans. We chose a tasty rice salad, containing tuna, roasted red peppers and olive oil. Going along nicely with that was a focaccia "panino," Italian for sandwich, with thick slices of cold pork loin, asparagus and the peppers.

When we got to the hot items, the first dish we chose was definitively Italian, calamares fritos. The squid rings were huge, tender and just oily enough to be flavorful, even without the tarragon-touched hot sauce. We also had moules au basilic, a half-dozen huge New Zealand mussels, fresh and in a tangy sauce of olive oil, basil and a splash of Pernod, for its anise tang. Having enjoyed the rice salad, we also ordered risotto alla sbirraglia, which had pieces of asparagus and chicken in a chicken stock and cream sauce. It was made with Carnaroli rice, which makes especially creamy risotto because of its high starch content.

Although people often choose two tapas apiece to share, six were plenty for us at that point, if we wanted any room for dessert. Still under the tapas thrall, we instinctively chose two items that would pair well. First, fresh pears in a port wine sauce containing shaved chocolate. Then la torta de Santiago, which looked like three slices of pound cake, but was coarser and rich with crushed almond. Each was $4 and quite delicious.

Oh, yes. Our friends certainly like the place. How does AquaViva compare? Providence has bigger portions, Barcelona fancier presentations.

Some other time we want to try the zarzuelas, usually a seafood stew. Variations include chicken and even gnocchi versions, priced at $18 and $22.

I hope that next time there will be a sherry menu. I love a nice, crisp fino whether there's a sardine in front of me or not. Until then, AquaViva Eurobistro customers will have to settle for the good wine and fine food.

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