Inside Track
Rhode Island Monthly, April 2006

By Lydia Walshin

"MEET AT THE FOUNTAIN next to Venda at 9." The emailed instructions sound like some sort of coded message. (In fact, I'm whispering as I write this.) I pack a notebook and sunglasses, and slip on my comfy walking shoes. One large cup of coffee later, I arrive in DePasquale Square to rendezvous with Shopping Federal Hill: An Insider's Italian Food Tour.

Cindy Salvato, an executive pastry chef who taught at Johnson & Wales for 13 years, created the tour three years ago, at first to reward her students for good attendance. Now she offers walking tours year-round, with customized tours available to accommodate special interests. Cindy's enthusiasm combined with professional culinary knowledge make her the guide you want to follow anywhere.

Eight of us meet at the fountain; one drove up from North Stonington, but all of the others live nearby and shop on the Hill. So, why take the tour? Cheryl Johnson, of Rumford, "loves all things food", and goes to many cooking classes and demos. Barbara Dobbyn, who lives in Warren, remembers coming to the Hill with her grandfather, who seemed to know all the right places to go. Everyone admits they're looking for insider info: who sells the best cheese, which brand of pasta to buy, where to get good bread.

After introductions and a bit of local socio-political history to set the stage, Cindy leads us past Angelo's fish truck ("he always parks outside Almonte's") to Tony's Colonial Food Store, where owner Tony DiCicco greets us with a mouth-watering platter of prosciutto and parmigiano -reggiano cheese. He turns on the television – a gesture of hospitality, Cindy explains. "This is really a neighborhood store," she adds. "They have every single ingredient you need to cook Italian food. You can sit with an espresso, eat lunch, and watch Italian soccer games on the satellite feed."

We cruise the aisles as Cindy points out her favorite brands of artisan pasta, canned tomatoes, rice, Nutella, panforte. She explains the difference between "eating" ricotta and "cooking" ricotta. Pure balsamic vinegar will say tradizionale on the label, she teaches us; if it doesn't, it's a blend of balsamic and red wine vinegar. We're scribbling in our notebooks, trying to capture her recipe suggestions, recommendations, and kitchen wisdom.

At our next stop,Venda Ravioli, store manager Michael McLynch guides us through the market, introducing the team leaders in each section. I confess that I've always been a bit intimidated at Venda, but it begins to make sense when McLynch compares the store to a typical Italian market street, with each department a specialty shop: meat, cheese, antipasto, bakery.

A native of Providence, McLynch has worked at Venda for ten years, and we smile when he gushes, "I think it's the greatest place in the world!" We're in awe of the beautiful displays of cookware, the gorgeous prepared foods, the coffee bar. Stopping at the meat department, McLynch says, "We give you cooking instructions with everything, but you may have a way your grandmother did it, and that's okay, too." In the antipasto case, he points out pepperdews from South Africa, and gives each of us a bowl of beautiful antipasto to nibble on while Tonie, who manages the cheese department "next door", offers a taste of a new truffle cheese that's just come in.

Tasting is a key ingredient in food shopping, of course, but the key to Shopping Federal Hill is serendipity: being in the right place at the right time to see something most people never get to see. As we cross the street to the pasta factory and bread ovens where Venda's own artisans create their masterpieces, we enter that serendipity zone. In the front room of a nondescript building at the rear of a small parking lot, five women are making ravioli. By hand. "They make thousands of dozens each day," McLynch says, as we watch the rhythmic rolling and filling of pumpkin, truffle, sun-dried tomato, and chicken-walnut raviolis. "Yes, you can cook them frozen," he responds to one of our questions, "Don't tumble them, but gently keep them moving so they don't stick." Cindy advises us to serve three or five ravioli on a plate; never serve four, she says, because for Italians, four is bad luck.

From somewhere in the building we smell garlic; we follow our noses into the back room, where all of the store's breads are baked every day. Venda owner Alan Constantino welcomes us. "It took me two years to get Cosimo [Venda's head baker] over from Italy," he says with obvious pride. "Every baker develops his own biga [starter]; it's different in every town in Italy."

Not only is Venda's garlic bread coming out of the oven as we arrive, but (serendipity again) Cosimo is just about to form cheese curd into fresh mozzarella, and we're there to watch. He plunges his hands into a huge bowl of boiling water filled with taffy-like curd, and in two minutes has transformed 24 pounds into 42 small balls, or bocconcini. We taste, of course; the cheese is smooth and creamy and slightly warm. Yum.

Up the street at Scialo Brothers Bakery, Carol Gaeta and her sister now run the business their father started in the 1930s. At that time there were eight or nine bakeries on Atwells Avenue, according to Gaeta, but today only Scialo Brothers remains. She invites us behind the counter into a large room where three enormous oil-fired brick ovens consume an entire wall. Everything – breads, wedding cakes, candies, pastries, biscotti – is made in these ovens. "We try not to take shortcuts," she says. "Everything is made from scratch." Everything includes a sampling of Russian tea cake and cookies which, with a large urn of coffee, has been set out for us right there in the baking room.

Barbara Dobbyn ordered her daughter's wedding cake from Scialo Brothers last year. "I've been coming to the Hill all my life," she tells me, "but I'm always a little uncertain about knowing the right places to go for the best olive oil, or the best sausages. You feel like a novice until someone points out the signposts and shows you the way. Cindy's tour is giving me the confidence to go into these stores and know what to buy. She's willing to tell you what she likes, and how to cook with these ingredients. I'm taking lots of notes! And I really love meeting the shop owners, too."

BY LATE MORNING, we've nibbled and noshed, so it's off to Gasbarro's, the oldest family-owned wine shop in New England, for a mini tasting. Fourth-generation owner Mark Gasbarro knows food and wine, and will help pair wine to any menu. "Bring your recipes, and we'll actually talk ingredients rather than the dish itself," he advises, "because it may be just one ingredient that affects your palate." The shop stocks more than 900 labels from Italy, including a gorgeous limoncello and several varieties of prosecco, the famous sparkling wine.

Our tour ends at Ocean State Chocolates. Owner-chocolatier Bernadette Ciccione reminds us of the role of cocoa powder in the diet of ancient civilizations. "We sell candy products," she tells us, "but we promote cocoa as a food." Yes, but her candies prove irresistible, especially the ones that incorporate local Rhode Island ingredients (cranberries, Del's lemonade, coffee syrup), and others that feature estate-grown varietal chocolates from sustainable-growth rainforest plantations South America. We sample chocolates with varying percentages of cocoa. We inhale the aroma of chocolate all around us. We've had a great day, and we are happy campers.

Cindy leaves us with a folder of goodies including discount coupons and recipes, and the confidence to shop anywhere for anything. Some of our group return to Gasbarro's for libations; others acquire a few sweet treats before leaving Ocean State Chocolates. Cheryl Johnson heads back to Venda, for more of those incredible pepperdews. There's no stopping us; we are Federal Hill insiders now.

[For more information about Shopping Federal Hill: An Insider's Italian Food Tour, visit www.savoringrhodeisland.com or www.learnconnect.com. To contact Lydia Walshin directly, email lydia@ninecooks.com.]


Pasta Foriana

Adapted from "The Dowry Cookbook," by Cynthia Salvato, this recipe, which her father created based on a favorite dish from Ciro and Sal's in Provincetown, serves 4.

  • 3/4 cup olive oil
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4-5 inches anchovy paste, from the tube
  • 1/2 cup walnuts, roughly chopped
  • 1/3 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
  • 1/2 cup dark raisins
  • 1/8 tsp crushed red pepper
  • Pinch black pepper
  • 5 Tbsp fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
  • 1 lb vermicelli or capellini pasta
  • Freshly grated parmesan cheese

In a heavy skillet, heat the oil slowly. Add the garlic and anchovy paste, and sauté over low heat for 3 to 4 minutes. Stir with a wooden spoon. The paste and garlic should be evenly distributed. Be careful that the garlic does not burn. Add remaining ingredients (except pasta) and simmer on low heat for 4 to 5 minutes. Cook the pasta according to package directions. Transfer the pasta into a warm serving bowl and toss in the Foriana mixture. Serve with grated parmesan cheese.

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