[Sidebar] December 21 - 28, 2000
[Food Reviews]
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Snazzy, but not fussy

by Bill Rodriguez

134 Atwells Ave., Providence, 331-7760
Open Mon-Thurs, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
Fri, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m., Sat, 1-11 p.m., Sun, 3-10 p.m.
Major credit cards
Handicapped access

Every restaurant around here with a decent martini, linen service, and a publicist works as hard on its cosmopolitan rep as it does on its calamari. We're smack dab between Boston and New York, so expectations are high. There are a handful of must-try places that succeed at seamlessly melding cuisine with elegant ambiance, and since we're talking Providence, the experience is likely to be less pretentious than in the Hub and more amiable than in Manhattan.

Out on the town with an out-of-state pal who has all but intergalactic foodie experience, my intuitive choice from the short list of the most ambitious was Mediterraneo. It's classy enough to have valet parking, but not fussy, and features a menu that's traditional, but reliable.

As it turned out, my friend had an enjoyable lunch there this past summer, lingering outside over a spread of appetizers. The restaurant's prime Federal Hill location is best appreciated then, as you people-watch strollers on Atwells Avenue from a café table. Inside in cold weather, you can turn to the busy kitchen through an archway and watch wait staff, in black vests and collarless white shirts, bustle about efficiently. Above the windows are photographs of Italian street scenes. Those acres of windows on two walls pull you into the city, but the decor subdues, with tan stucco walls and a muted blue-green ceiling. Bold blue water glasses rest on the granite slab tables.

A bottle of "the Mayor's Own" olive oil also is on every table -- and it's first-rate, by the way. (Yes, this is Buddy's favorite restaurant, as it appears to be for director Michael Corrente when he's in town and not downscaling over at Angelo's Civita Farnese.) Your server will pour some onto a plate sprinkled with red pepper flakes, to go with the small loaves of fresh Italian bread. Informative and dryly humorous, our waiter, Manny, had a lot to do with the success of our meal.

Mediterraneo's wine selection is superb, as I'd recently learned at a traditional seven fishes Christmas dinner, and as I was reminded by my Pinot Grigio and my friend's Merlot, available by the glass.

Among the appetizers, I've found the calamari ($8.95) to be tender and not greasy, if uneventfully traditional. While the lobster and crab cakes ($9.95) looked like a fresh variation, we decided to split an antipasto plate ($10.95/$19.95). The order "for one" was plenty for both of us to get our appetites going. This array is usually a good indication of whether a place has any imagination and finesse, and the answer here is yes and yes. The slice of mushroom-sprinkled frittata was especially tasty; the caponata, salted with anchovies, had zucchini as well as eggplant; the potato croquettes and Sicilian rice balls were crispy and dry; and the fresh mozzarella was indeed fresh.

For a main dish, some sort of seafood was a temptation, because of the success there of my recent La Vigilia feast. I'd liked the abundant little necks in the spaghetti alle vongole ($16.95), although the pasta had been so al dente it was chewy. My friend considered having what looked to be a colossal signature dish, a baked seafood medley ($29.95) promising everything from jumbo shrimp to stone crab-stuffed sole. But a less ambitious appetite urged him toward the tagliatelle alla Bolognese ($16.95) This time, the pasta had just the right bite, and he pronounced the slightly cream-pinked tomato sauce to be smooth as honey. Tagliatelle is what northern Italians call fettuccine, and like all the fresh pasta at Mediterraneo, it comes from nearby Venda Ravioli. This Bolognese variation had veal, pork and beef in discernable bits rather than ground.

Not quite up to the steak offerings, I was more in a chicken filet mood. I chose a variation, the petti di tacchino alla Nicola ($17.95) -- which is an exotic way to say grilled turkey breast marinated in white wine and lemon, olive oil and herbs. My friend was shaking his head, predicting that it would taste not unlike tofu. I enjoyed the dish's smoky flavor, but some of the marinade would have been a welcome accompaniment. The red bliss mashed potatoes and mesclun salad with balsamic vinaigrette on the plate were a perfect accompaniment.

There were only two desserts available, as our bemused waiter kept listing under the incredulous and baffled inquiries of my dinner companion: Tiramisu and a chocolate-raspberry torte ($5.95 each). This is a 100 percent improvement from the days when the restaurant listed one dessert per night, take it or leave it. I chose the torte and was delighted: cloud-like chocolate mousse atop tangy raspberry jam in a dense and tasty shell.

Executive chef Michele Calise, formerly of the Blue Grotto up the street, and corporate chef Gianfranco Campanella, from Il Bacio in Boston, signed on at Mediterraneo last summer. Calise provides traditional substance to the menu and preparations, while Campanella offers a younger perspective and approach. If my recent visits were typical, the personality of this successful restaurant has grown even more well-rounded as a result.

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