[Sidebar] November 6 - 13, 1997
[Food Reviews]
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Raphael Bar-Risto

Making something simple simply wonderful

by Bill Rodriguez

5600 Post Rd., East Greenwich, 884-4424
Open Tues-Sat, 5 to 10 p.m.
Sun, 3 to 10 p.m.
Major credit cards
Sidewalk-level access

I'm glad I don't have a heart condition. A few weeks ago, before a Water/Fire walkabout with some out-of-state friends, we strolled over to Raphael Bar-Risto on South Water Street and found another restaurant in its place. What? What would be missing next -- the Independent Man?

Not to worry. Raphael will reopen across the river in a few months. Then, of course, there is always the other Raphael that opened this year in East Greenwich.

On the basis of one visit years ago, Raphael had leapt to my personal short list of upscale Providence restaurants. Indeed, lasagna will never be the same for me after chef-owner Ralph Conte's imaginative version -- a sublime medley of tastes and textures that was also a party for the eye.

Trained in Italy and at his Neapolitan grandmother's table, Conte opened his first Raphael in North Kingstown 15 years ago. Every site since then has been hip and comfortable, thanks to his RISD-trained wife, Elisa. Her eye for detail is all-encompassing, right down to the signature wiggly spiral logo that is echoed in the wrought-iron chair backs and railings.

Visually, the roomy East Greenwich location isn't as interestingly quirky as the more intimate South Water space was with its marble balustrades and gargoyles. Even so, EG's Raphael has warm wood and crystal chandeliers, subdued art on the walls, and an overall semi-formal bistro ambiance.

The antipasti offerings here are a good indication of the kitchen philosophy: trust good ingredients to tell it like it is and have something worthwhile to say. (And to converse nicely with a good selection of wines by the glass.) The prosciutto with fresh Mozzarella, basil pesto, and oven-dried tomatoes ($6.95) is high quality. Also, rather than fried calamari, you can try squid stuffed Neapolitan-style ($7.95).

Baccala is comfort food for me, so we ordered fritters ($5.95) that contained the traditional dried cod and were served with a generous pile of watercress and a side dish of lemon and caper aioli. An antipasto alternative, or accompaniment, could be what I think of as their "greatest hits" salad. It contains arugula, endive, and radicchio ($6.95).

The menu is manageable but varied, with 16 main course dishes in addition to daily specials. Half are pastas, the rest seafood and meat. Billed as their "signature dish" is a shelled lobster fra diavolo ($23.95). It's a risky attempt -- the spicy heat tends to overwhelm such a delicate flavor -- but I would trust it in Conte's hands.

As with the appetizers, main dishes show how a little creativity can make something simple simply wonderful. The chef's take on the omnipresent pasta primavera, for instance, is to use artichoke ravioli and sauté vegetables and greens in a spicy garlic-truffle oil ($15.95). Clever but not gimmicky.

I settled on the grilled pork chops, however ($14.95). Two juicy center-cut chops, one had a sprig of rosemary stuck into it like a victory pennant, and for good reason. They were served on a large pile of spinach containing the earthy complement of toasted pine nuts. Small Yukon gold potatoes, par-boiled and grilled, lay in the meat juices. Atop the chops was a delicious concoction of figs and red onions cooked with a splash of grappa. Another intelligent combination -- every taste on the plate went with every other one.

Across the table was another recommendable choice, sage-roasted chicken breast ($15.95). The two pieces were curled around portobello mushrooms topped with Fontina and caponata that was heavy on the Sicilian olives. All this was over a rich yellow-corn polenta (also available as an appetizer) containing fresh basil. Quite wonderful.

The only miss among these hits was a frozen dessert that was served inedibly hard. Still, once it had thawed at home, the white- and dark-chocolate-mousse layered chocolate cake was a tasty treat. From the expected tiramisu to the innovative house special, mascarpone-slathered dessert pizza, all the desserts here ($6.95) are made on the premises.

Given Rhode Islanders' aversion to travel, if voyaging to East Greenwich is too much to ask, even for a great meal, just wait. Come March, the latest incarnation of Raphael Bar-Risto will open next to Capital Grille.

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