Before Al Forno (577 S. Main St.; 401/273-9767; dinner for two $85) introduced its haute grilled pizza to Providence, R.I., 23 years ago, the city's culinary terrain was desolate—more ramen than risotto. But thanks to the yearly influx of more than 20,000 college students, and the recent revival of this industrial town (spearheaded by flamboyant former mayor-turned-convict Vincent "Buddy" Cianci Jr.), Providence has caught up with nearby Boston as a food-lover's destination. Here, a few of the city's best restaurants:
DOWNTOWN On a once decaying edge of the city, Empire (123 Empire St.; 401/621-7911; dinner for two $65) is a neighborhood favorite for chef Loren Falsone's modern Italian dishes (pappardelle with pork-rib ragu, tempura-dipped calamari). • Pull up a stool beside the granite-topped raw bar at Mill's Tavern (101 N. Main St.; 401/272-3331; dinner for two $100) for oysters and a dry martini. The grill room's braised short ribs, like everything else on the menu, are oversized and delicious. • The boho-style dining room Cav (14 Imperial Place; 401/751-9164; dinner for two $100), which doubles as an antiques store, is matched by its eclectic menu: seared scallops with sugar-beet mousseline, hijiki-encrusted tuna, asparagus vichyssoise. • Olga's Cup & Saucer (103 Point St.; 401/831-6666; lunch for two $22) supplies artisanal bread to many of the city's restaurants and serves overstuffed calzones and tarts to a hungry lunch crowd. It's worth the wait for a table under the apricot tree out front. • The latest addition to the riverfront area is Big Fish (370 Richmond St., opened in August; 401/751-3474; dinner for two $80), from veteran Providence restaurateur John Elkhay. With dishes like "wicked good" fried clams and seared "everything" tuna, the menu promises a tongue-in-cheek approach to seafood.
FEDERAL HILL L'Epicureo (238 Atwells Ave.; 401/454-8430; dinner for two $80) offers regional Italian classics with a twist: lobster ravioli topped by grilled sea scallops, and a salmon fillet covered in mint-yogurt sauce. • Locals and college students pack into the boisterous Providence Oyster Bar (283 Atwells Ave.; 401/272-8866; dinner for two $90) for Rhode Island littlenecks and coconut shrimp. • Visit Constantino's Venda Ravioli (265 Atwells Ave.; 401/421-9105; lunch for two $15) for picnic essentials: salted capers, marinated artichokes, Gorgonzola-stuffed olives, and hot soppressata. • At Pastiche (92 Spruce St.; 401/861-5190; dessert for two $13), a café off cobblestoned DePasquale Square, the chocolate hazelnut torte takes the cake.
Additional reporting by Caroline Novogrod