[Sidebar] September 28 - October 5, 2000
[Food Reviews]
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The more things change, the more they stay the same

by Bill Rodriguez

525 South Main St., Providence, 454-1611
Open Sun-Thurs, 12-10 p.m., Fri-Sat, 12-11 p.m.
Major credit cards
No access (bar level only)

For such a small city, Providence offers some interesting opportunities to make our dining experience run smoother through pre-prandial lubrication. Every restaurant worth their liquor license has a decent wine list, and a shelf of single-malt Scotches is de rigueur once the chops and steaks on the menu exceed a certain number. And these days, you can have your choice of sherries with your tapas, and choose from an array of tequilas to sip with your cocktel de camarones. For all I know, there's a place that prides itself in its choices of rose petal aperitifs.

What I do know is that Grappa always offers a selection of at least a dozen varieties of its namesake, the fiery clear liquor that my Sicilian grandfather loved to pour for special occasions. It's distilled from the skin and seed residue left after wine pressing, and tastes the way a rising phoenix must feel. Glorious stuff.

Walking into the restaurant you get the sense that the bottled collection isn't a gimmick, but a token of gracious dining. You first enter the bar area, where you can sip and smoke, or have a meal, while seated in lush leather armchairs. Several tables on the deck offer the chance to dine while overlooking the mini-marina and watching the ferries glide to and from Newport. The Providence River hurricane barrier is close by, and we saw a school of fish visiting from open ocean -- the blues are running -- churning the water for 100 yards in a feeding frenzy. Across the water, the three sleek smokestacks of the electric company stand like some huge industrial sculpture.

Upstairs is smoke-free, so we climbed the spiral staircase to the light-filled dining room. The decor is simpler than in past years, when there were paintings on the walls. Spiral cut-outs decorate a brass ornament above the stairs, and similar designs cover the indirect lighting on the walls. The menus are laminated onto thin brass sheets, continuing the visual effect.

While we decided on our appetizer, we were pleasantly distracted by hot, crusty Italian bread, fresh out of the oven and served with small plates of rosemary olive oil. Although the wood-grilled calamari ($9.99) atop mixed greens was a temptation, to keep track of variations of the omnipresent offering, we chose the signature Grappa littlenecks ($11.99). Six clams were roasted in a brothy tomato and onion concoction, flavored nicely with fruity pinot grigio, herb-infused. The bread found additional use.

Some of the entrées are downright cheap, considering the pricey appetizers. There's a vegetable risotto for $12.99, and a simple penne with marinara sauce for $10.99. In addition to seven pasta and risotto dishes, there are eight main courses on the regular menu, with four or five specials recited by the wait person.

The wood-grilled pork chops ($16.99) had been recommended to me for their honey-onion glaze, but I wasn't up for something quite that hearty. I chose the pan-seared chicken breast ($14.99) instead of the wood-grilled version ($15.99), because I was attracted by its announced red pepper sauce. It was less a sauce than a glaze, the breast folded over to retain moisture, with strips of pepper placed on top. Simple and delicious.

Johnnie had a special of the day, swordfish ($21.99). Sesame-oil-anointed and grilled, it was as juicy and flavorful as my dish, with that special delicate taste that only the freshest swordfish can hold onto. (By the way, the swordfish boycott is over -- you may indulge in good conscience again.) Both dishes came with skin-on red bliss mashed potatoes, mine with smoky grilled squash and zucchini, and hers with a side of mesclun greens.

Among the desserts, the "molten chocolate cake" ($8.99), described as having a warm liquid center, was tempting. We chose the Grappa tartuffu ($6.99) because its accompanying French vanilla ice cream seemed an appealing complement. It, too, was warm inside, soft and densely flavorful with the thinnest of crusts for textural contrast. Made to order, these two desserts need to be asked for early in the meal if you don't want a long wait.

Neath Pal, now the celebrated chef/proprietor of nearby Neath's, was the original chef at Grappa. Early in 1997, Tony Morales became the executive chef here, and it looks like he's carrying on the founding tradition. Both men came from the neighboring kitchen of world-class Al Forno, where Morales worked for 12 years. It's good to see the local restaurant scene growing so organically. Some day, apprenticing in a Grappa kitchen (a Newport location opened in April) may be a claim to culinary kudos.

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