Rediscovering an old favorite
by Bill Rodriguez
1686 Cranston St., Cranston, 942-1970
Open Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; Mon.-Thurs., 4:30-9 p.m.;
p.m.; Sat., 5-9:30 p.m.; Sun., 4-8:30 p.m.
Major credit cards
The best Italian restaurants are founded on nostalgia. That's my theory,
anyway. Nostalgia over mama's marinara sauce, over nonna's veal saltimbocca.
Or, as in the case of Greg Spremulli, nostalgia over the Lazo region of
southern Italy that his grandparents came from, and their town of Itri. They
settled in the Knightsville section of Cranston, and that's where Caffé
Itri has been since 1990, working on promoting nostalgia for that
With considerable success. When I ask people who love Italian restaurants what
their favorites are, Caffé Itri usually comes up on the short list. And
it continues to be discovered, even though two more of the top half-dozen
moderate-priced Italian restaurants in greater Providence are within a few
blocks. On our recent visit, a woman in a large party at the next table gushed
to our waiter, "It was so good last week, we're back tonight." The place gets
the occasional award and magazine nod, the latest being a Yankee
recommendation earlier this year. We also noticed that the chef-proprietor of a
Providence restaurant -- a non-Italian one -- was there with friends.
You enter through a bar section that is filled with dining tables, indicating
where priorities lie. The restaurant offered seating only in the upper section,
through a doorway, when we came on a Tuesday night. The space is bright and
simple in a refined way, painted white, with green terrazzo tiles at the
doorway and bordering the room table-high. Black and white photographs of Itri
and other Italian sights fill the walls. With a tin ceiling and other surfaces
that don't absorb sounds, the place is quite noisy when full.
As an encouraging introductory touch, the olive oil on the table, served with
a boule of Italian bread, was especially flavorful. If wine is also a
preliminary you enjoy, there is a good selection of Italian and domestic
choices, with several available by the glass (including a just-tart-enough
Stracceli '97 chianti).
A couple of appetizers signal a fondness for country cooking. Unusual outside
of Hispanic restaurants, tripe ($5.95) is available in "a spicy Neapolitan
ragu." Listed as a farmers special, there is the simple, luscious cannellini
beans over bread ($6.95), in this case grilled focaccia topped with prosciutto.
We chose the grilled portobello over polenta ($7.50). Strips of the meaty
mushroom in a tomato sauce with fresh thyme, and pungent with garlic, topped
two large broiled triangles of the firm, creamy corn meal treat on a bed of
mixed greens. We were not disappointed.
For the budget-minded or pasta-loving, there are more than a dozen choices,
priced at $10 and $11. From a simple aglio e olio, through gnocchi with a
gorgonzola cream sauce, to breaded and sauteed eggplant over penne, there's
something for every taste. Imported, tangy San Marzano tomatoes are used in the
sauces, whether simmered or cooked to order.
All of the seafood is served with pasta, usually linguini, although there's an
interesting-sounding grilled shrimp and scallops dish served over baked
capellini. (I wouldn't think angel hair pasta could take the heavy cooking, but
I'd trust this kitchen.) My dining mate chose a variation among the specials,
scallop and lobster with lasagna pasta ($16.95). The dish also had spinach and
tomatoes in a brandy cream sauce that was neither cloying nor overly brandied,
but which was quite peppery. Judging from the difficulty of getting more than a
taste from across the table, I guess she really liked it.
From among the choices of veal chops, pork chops and beef tenderloin with
morel mushroom butter, the chicken marsala ($14.95) caught my eye and appetite.
A good choice. The two large portions of meat were under an ambrosial sauce,
not thickened, which went very well with the lightly garlicked red-skinned
mashed potatoes and the three kinds of mushrooms. No vegetables accompanied
them, but I was too distracted by the tasty job at hand to even notice for a
Among the kitchen-made desserts, such as cheesecake and the obligatory
tiramisú, Fra Angelico cake ($4.95) sounded especially good. And it was.
Golden, buttery pound cake dribbled with the hazelnut liqueur, a bit of sugary
glaze on top of the large easily sharable wedge. A pleasant end to a good meal.