Arts & Culture

City food scene fosters trattorias, traditions

Recipes passed down for years yield community among Italian eateries on and off Federal Hill

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Over 30 years ago, Al Forno’s grilled pizza made Providence prominent on the national restaurant scene. Owners George Germon and Johanne Killeen invented the dish, but the origins remain a partial mystery.

You need to wait until it’s lit, Chef Phil Niosi explains. Then it’s really something to see.

The main kitchen of Al Forno is a sight to behold, with its racks of freshly baked bread tempting the taste buds at 3 p.m. last Friday afternoon. Station upon station of cutting boards and burners promises to provide even more delectable wonders when the restaurant opens at 5 p.m.

Niosi is referring not to the unit as a whole, but rather its most distinctive inhabitant. Set back into the wall rests an enormous brick pizza oven — old hat for an Italian restaurant, save for the grill spanning its width. This, he proudly announces, is the home of Al Forno’s famous grilled pizza.

As the cooks begin to populate the kitchen for the night’s work, the oven bursts into flames and the fire roars majestically to life, perhaps recreating the scene of grilled pizza’s invention by the restaurant’s owners George Germon and Johanne Killeen when it opened in 1980.

The invention was an accident, Niosi says, but so many versions of the genesis tale exist that he is unwilling to divulge a history twisted over the years.

Germon explains that one day, while he was picking up fresh fish for the restaurant shortly after it opened, someone at the market mentioned he had just returned from Italy, where he witnessed pizza being grilled. Germon discussed this intriguing kitchen technique with Killeen, who thought the man most likely had his terminology wrong, calling a typical beehive oven a grill. But they went to work and tried it anyway, creating a dish that would put Al Forno — and in some ways Providence — on the map as the dough hit the grates for the first time.

Al Forno now sits on a different plot than its original home on Steeple Street — the new location offers a serene escape from city life right near the waterfront on South Main Street. The upstairs and outside dining areas offer views of the water and a garden, respectively, sheltering customers from the traffic outside.

Born of the couple’s two loves — Providence and Italy — Al Forno is both a reflection of and inspiration for today’s vibrant Providence food community, particularly in the realm of Italian cuisine.

 

Italian imports

The story of much of Providence’s cuisine begins with a tale of migration.

Zooma Trattoria began serving southern Italian food in 2004 after owner James Cardi, born on Federal Hill, decided to reach out to his family’s roots.

General Manager Armando Bisceglia, himself from Naples, is proud of the authenticity found in the restaurant’s Neapolitan pizzas, handmade pastas and Bolognese recipes passed down from Italian immigrants and produced by a chef from Pisciotta, Italy.

“I don’t know if you’re going to be able to get more Italian than us,” he says.

Julian Forge, owner of Julian’s since 1994, was born in Federal Hill to parents who came to the United States from Italy after World War II. Chris Tarro, who owns Siena along with his brother Anthony, says he reconnected with his Tuscan roots through the restaurant — his parents, who were born in the United States to Italian immigrants, grew up a half-mile away. Domenic Ierfino’s family was attracted to the Italian section of Providence, which consists of eateries and clothing stores. Thirty-one years after its founding, his trattoria Roma adds to Federal Hill’s heritage.

This Italian tradition has made national waves since the 1950s, when Frank Sinatra regularly visited Federal Hill when touring New England, Forge says.

 

Local flavor

The story of the Providence restaurant scene continues with the emergence of community solidarity.

“I made sausage with peppers and onions one Sunday, and I came out of the kitchen to see how everyone was doing and there was a young woman who looked like she was sobbing,” says Bob Antignano, owner of Angelo’s, which his grandfather-in-law opened in 1924 after immigrating from Pescara, Italy. “I said, ‘Is everything okay?’” he recalls. “She looked up at me and said, ‘You brought my grandmother back to life.’”

Angelo’s has three customers who still only refer to the restaurant by the name Civita Farnese. Ninety years ago, when they started dining there, that was its name, Antignano says.

“I’m not a restaurant that just makes money and leaves,” Forge says. “I clean my neighbor’s sidewalks, I help the older lady cross the street.”

Forge is simply repaying the community that accepted him in 1994 when he opened Julian’s after returning to Providence to spend time with his sick father. He knew next to nothing of the food business — his work experience consisted of founding a worldwide professional paintball league. But as he learned the tricks of the trade from local butchers, seafood vendors and sushi entrepreneurs, Julian’s developed into an establishment he describes as busy since its early days.

On a larger scale, Providence’s renowned restaurants have opened up to supporting Rhode Island in another way — through local food sourcing.

“I would say the focus on local and sustainable food sourcing has taken off,” says Katie Kleyla, director of private events and marketing at Gracie’s, a restaurant focused on seasonal dishes. What the restaurant doesn’t grow on its own, it gets from local farms and purveyors, something the proprietors of Zooma Trattoria, Julian’s, Al Forno and Siena all stress in their menus.

 

Evolving tastes

And today, the story of Providence’s cuisine becomes a story of change and the fight for tradition.

Thirty years ago — around the time Al Forno burst onto the scene — Federal Hill was almost strictly Italian, leaving every restaurant to find its own niche within the cuisine, says Suzann Ierfino, whose husband Domenic co-owns Roma.

Giants like Camille’s and Al Forno cemented Providence’s national reputation as one of the most dominant food scenes in the country, something Germon says contributed to the explosion of restaurants after that time. “It just opened the doors to Providence, and I think it gave other people inspiration to open restaurants there and do well.”

“I knew if I could just be near them, I’d be okay,” Forge says. “I’d catch the overflow, and that’s eventually what happened.”

As the food scene boomed and the local farm movement caught on, restaurants realized they no longer had to cater solely to an Italian-hungry audience.

“The trend of Italian being the hip thing to do doesn’t exist anymore,” Kleyla says. “Most restaurants that are on the map are seasonal-inspired and are pulling from many different types of cuisines.” Patrons strolling Federal Hill now see establishments offering Mexican, Indian, Chinese and Lebanese food.

“Me being Italian, most people expected I was going to do Italian food,” Forge says. “I like to think I helped to create or recreate Providence’s first original cuisine.”

This change in cuisine is also accompanied by a change in clientele. Food Network’s “50 States, 50 Pizzas” featured Al Forno in August 2011. One year ago, “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” stopped by Angelo’s on Atwells Avenue. Due to this national coverage, both restaurants receive hungry customers from around the world.

“Twenty years ago, you couldn’t turn on the TV and see a restaurant seven states away,” Bisceglia says.

With the expansion of the Internet, the food economy has widened, allowing customers to find new things to experience, Germon says. Travelers can instantly know which eateries have received media praise.

On any given Saturday night, over a third of Siena’s patrons hail from out of state, Tarro says.

The influx of young talent from Johnson and Wales University’s culinary school is changing the game, Kleyla says. Gracie’s, Siena and Zooma Trattoria all employ interns from the institution.

These converging factors are erupting in an identity crisis for Federal Hill, one of Providence’s most storied areas, Bisceglia says.

The Italian restaurants “have a history on the street and a culture that is vastly going away,” Bisceglia said.

“We would rather have someone eat on the Hill than eat anywhere else in Providence, even if it isn’t at our restaurant,” Tarro says, echoing Bisceglia’s sentiment. But Tarro worries the fabric of Federal Hill is being challenged — by lounges, nightclubs and a rowdier clientele.

While Antignano praises the variety Federal Hill now offers customers, Tarro favors a comparison to other areas with traditionally Italian roots: “When you think of Boston’s North End, you don’t think of nightclubs and lounges, you think of great Italian restaurants and markets.”

But even confronted with an uncertain future, Providence restaurants have chosen to react as they always have — as a community. Owners on Federal Hill have joined to launch beautification, policing and advertising projects, realizing the need now, in a tough economy more than ever, to cement their position in the area.

“The better the Hill does, the better we all do,” Tarro says. “I don’t think anyone can outperform the Hill.”