Photo courtesy of Gourmet Guide

From Cannoli to Prosecco: Walking Tour on "the Hill"
Gourmet Guide
May 2007

By Deborah Brindamour

I have lived in Rhode Island practically my entire life and have somehow managed never to visit Federal Hill. Until now. With her extensive knowledge of the area and robust Italian roots, Chef Cindy Salvato has shown me…. "The Hill".  Her market tour of the area led our group of ten through food stores, gourmet delis and bakeries, just to name a few of our stops along the way!

We met on an overcast Wednesday by the three-tier fountain in DePasquale Plaza. Who knew this delightful courtyard lined with flower boxes and outdoor restaurant seating even existed? It didn't take long before the smell from Venda Ravioli's kitchen wafted our way. I could have followed my nose right in for a meal if it weren't for the 9am hour and, of course, the tour! If that was just a sample of what Federal Hill had to offer, I knew our group was in for a treat!

When all the tour guests had arrived, Cindy started with an explanation of expectations for the tour and an overview of the places we would be visiting. The tour was now officially underway. I was excited about what I would learn in the next three hours: I had never been to Federal Hill, I know very little about food and cooking, and I am the farthest thing from Italian! None of this mattered as Cindy whisked us off to begin the tour.

Cindy began the tour with a history of the area. The key to understanding all The Hill has to offer is to understand how it all began. As I looked up at the building facades being renovated to reflect "the colors of gelato" and imagined the old push cart vendors lining the streets, I had a small vision of what Italy must be like.

After a brief explanation of Antonelli's Poultry and Almonte's vintage clothing and accessories store, we moved on down the street to Tony's Colonial Food Store. Here you will find any and all ingredients for Italian cooking. We quickly see that it is not only for groceries but also for prepared foods. Many people come here for lunch to sit at the small tables and watch an Italian channel broadcast on the in-store TV. In Italy, you see, having the television on is a sign of hospitality. There is no doubt that those who enter this store feel welcome. Cindy explains to us how to use tuna in our recipes and how great San Marzano tomatoes taste. We are surrounded by pastas in all different colors and shapes, both artisan style and commercial, and now after learning, we can describe to you the difference. The prepared food section is out of this world and we all drool looking into the deli cases. Luckily for us, the store has prepared a sample of their prosciutto and parmigiano-reggiano and we happily oblige. We've had our first food sample on the tour, and let's just say that no one was disappointed!

Our next stop, Roma Gourmet, is filled with their famous breads, deli meats, and stuffed peppers. We walk through the store gazing wide-eyed at all of their offerings. We learn a lesson on Arancini, a Sicilian dish in which rice is shaped into balls and fried; and then are offered samples of Soprasatta and extra sharp Provolone. As we move on, our samples are topped off with a Sicilian olive and we get a chance to take a quick peek at Roma's bakery section in the side portion of the store. They have many different dessert options, but my attention was held captive by the cannoli (apparently some of the best in town). There is no doubt, I'll be returning for them later.

The ravioli team at Venda Ravioli.
What would a tour of Federal Hill be without a stop at Venda Ravioli? Mid-way through our tour we find out exactly what all the talk is about!  The shop is set up with deli case after deli case of the finest meats, cheeses, and prepared foods. We are offered not samples, but practically a whole meal!

We start with a chopped antipasto and bread, and the cheese and pepper samples keep coming our way, each one more delicious than the last. We see the case of handmade stuffed raviolis but we know that more information is to come on them and we make our way to the exit instead of stopping. We breeze by a somewhat "hidden" gelato case but I stop quickly to check out the flavors and now I see what Cindy meant by the "colors of gelato" earlier in our tour.

From here we go to the Venda Raviolli Room where five woman work to make those incredible homemade raviolis. It is just what the name says it is: a room. It has a few butcher block working tables, tall refrigerators, a tiny "kitchen" area, and just enough room for the women and our group. Cindy explains the delicate process of how to cook the raviolis while I am in awe, looking from one woman to the next as they work feverishly with their hands. Each square is filled precisely and rolled with expertise. We learn that one of the women makes all the stuffing right in that tiny kitchen with just a mixer and the recipes known only by her memory. As not to distract them, we move on, but from this day forward, every time I eat Venda's mouthwatering ravioli I will remember this room and those five fine ladies.

Behind the scenes at Scialo Brothers Bakery
To top off our day, we are able to see some of the magic that takes place . Co-owner and Scialo sister, Lois, starts us off with a bit of history. The bakery was opened by her father in 1916 and she is proud to tell us that everything, and I mean everything, in the bakery is made from scratch. From the sweet smell of the Italian cookies just baked to the rows of perfect pies, cakes, and breads on display. I am amazed that everything is made by hand with no preservatives and without any mechanical processing. We are given a lesson on breads and then taken into the bakery's sacred ground ... a huge room with giant mixers, working tables, and the backbone of the operation – three 14 x 14 foot brick ovens.

With a sound like that of a jet engine roaring for take off, one of the ovens is lit and we get to see how these three ovens are used every day. We also see one of the bakers making Sfogliatelles, a bakery favorite shaped like clams and filled with sweetened cheese custard, while enjoying the coffee and goodies that Lois has put out for us to enjoy.

Now stuffed, we waddle to our last stop on the tour, Gasbarro's Wines. The store, established in 1898 is one of the oldest businesses on the street. We are surrounded with over 1800 different wines to choose from, 900 of which are from Italy. Mark Gasbarro himself talks with us and offers his expertise in food and wine pairings as well as gives us a wine tasting. After tasting a wine called Foradori and having a small sip of amaretto liqueur, we are on our own to scout out a favorite wine to take home. With Mark's help, I pick out a Prosecco sparkling wine and I think hmmmmmm, how will this go with those cannoli back at Roma?

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