[Sidebar] February 5 - 12, 1998
[Food Reviews]
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L'Epicurio Ristorante

A rags-to-riches tale with a most delicious ending

by Bill Rodriguez

238 Atwells Avenue, 454-8430
Open Tues - Thurs 5:30 - 9 p.m., Fri and Sat 5:30 - 10 p.m.
Major credit cards
Sidewalk access

There are humble origins and there are humble origins. Sure the little meat market and gourmet shop on Federal Hill used to be a good place to get your Italian taste treats (mmm, that Tuscan sausage), but its success story since then has been like something Horatio Alger would've written. Starting out in 1991 with a few lunch-time tables in a room next to the meat counter, L'Epicurio Ristorante today fills the whole space, plus a sizable room out back.

And appreciation for the Italian eatery has been equally expansive. In 1994, Esquire restaurant critic John Mariani touted L'Epicurio as one of the nation's best new restaurants of the year, while the New York Times included it in its short list (along with Cafe; Nuovo and the late, great Bluepoint Oyster Bar) in a survey of Providence's top dining spots.

Ambiance is part of the allure here. Burgundy brocade chair backs and maroon walls with gold spiral accents set the tone. Greenery tops a partition with cherub statues at each end.

Owners Tom and Rosanne Buckner also have kept the overall mood subdued, fancy but not stuffy. And they're here most nights to make sure it stays this way -- she as hostess and he visible behind the counter of the open kitchen.

The salty focaccia in the bread basket is what first piques the taste buds, though. It's the thick and spongy type, all the better to soak up the rosemary-infused olive oil. The companion Italian bread, also made on the premises, is so fresh and so chewy with high-gluten flour that the eventual crumb scraper merely goes through the motions.

Appetizers at L'Epicurio are varied, with wild mushrooms topping both polenta and bruschetta and your choice of red or white clams zuppa. I also love their stracciatella ($5.50), a Roman-style egg-drop chicken stock soup with an odd, and welcome, hint of nutmeg.

Our favorite starter of all time, though, is the wood-grilled portobello with shrimp ($8.95). One reason why is that it so convenient to share, consisting of two big mushroom caps and two shrimp, grilled with restraint, on a bed of braised spinach.

The garlicky green was the perfect earthy match for the rest of the dish, while the succulent mushrooms were so meaty that my dining buddy joked that the combination was like surf 'n' turf.

For the main part of the meal, L'Epicurio, in its first year, offered only pastas and gnocchi and a few seafood main dishes. But with that wood grill, today's house specialties include veal sausage, and the six meat items outnumber the seafood choices. Naturally, then, I had to try the pork loin ($18.95). I wasn't disappointed.

The two-inch-thick tenderloin was pan-seared rather than grilled, to keep it juicy, and served medium, as requested. Wilted spinach was again a good complement, and the butter on top was flavored with an interesting blend of red onions and Gorgonzola cheese.

What's more, accompanying this on the plate were not more vegetables but marvelously crispy griddled Arborio rice cakes, herb-filled and tasty even without the Merlot sauce they were in.

Across from me, there had been no hemming and hawing over the choice entrées either. She'd shot straight to the lobster ravioli ($20.95) on the menu and never looked back. And understand this: search as you may, you will never find a better version of this dish.

While there were only five of the plump, kitchen-made ravioli on her plate, each was stuffed with a generous portion of shredded lobster that somehow had not been overcooked in the al dente pasta. Also surprising was that the delicate flavor came through the cognac and cream sauce, full of chopped shallots and Parmesan. Three tender sea scallops, cross-hatched from the grill, were at the center of the plate.

Also homemade, the desserts here run from tiramisu to white-chocolate cheesecake and the chocolate torte ($7.50) that we had. The rich, runny filling was in a thick, buttery shell, flanked by twin excesses -- a small scoop of vanilla ice cream and a dollop of whipped cream.

In a city of fine Italian restaurants, it's great to see other standard-bearers in a class once occupied solely by Alforno.

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