[Sidebar] September 9 - 16, 1999
[Food Reviews]
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Caffe Itri

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.;
Fri., 4:30-9:30 p.m.; Sat., 5-9:30 p.m.; Sun., 4-8:30 p.m.
Major credit cards
Sidewalk-level access

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 neighborhood.

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 while.

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.

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