Monday, February 28, 2011

Dining Under the Tuscan Sun at Siena

What better way to experience the culinary wonders of Tuscany, Italy than by way of Providence, RI? Seriously. Siena, located in the heart of Federal Hill on Atwells Ave, delivers finely executed dishes which are heavily influenced by the Tuscan region. Six years after the restaurant’s opening, owners Anthony and Chris Tarro, who grew up in Warwick, RI, have transformed their passion for authentic Italian food and created a menu constituted of what they term Tuscan soul food. Consistently voted Best Restaurant by RI Monthly Readers’ poll, does Siena live up to its esteemed billing?

Siena’s ambience is as warm as Tuscany’s climate. The dimly-lit restaurant’s color scheme includes walls splashed with terra cotta red, yellow, orange, brown, and green hues. An elongated bar with cheetah print seats welcomes customers inside, while a relaxed back room provides a more private, intimate setting.

The Tarro brothers take authentic Tuscan cuisine seriously. Much of their cuisine utilizes regional ingredients such as beans and olive oil, while also incorporating unique cooking methods such as wood grilling.

Appetizers, which average $7-16, were relatively strong. Funghi Portabello ai Ferri ($9) included two generous, meaty grilled portabello mushroom caps baked with goat cheese, caramelized onions, roasted peppers, and crispy pancetta wheels, whose saltiness nicely balanced the cheese’s tartness. It’s a gorgeously executed and well-plated dish. Equally impressive was a visually stunning Caprese salad ($10), which included yellow and red tomatoes stacked high with mozzarella cheese, basil and baby arugula while topped with gorgonzola cheese and balsamic reduction. Zuppa di Vongole Bianco ($10) included littleneck clams sautéed in a white wine, garlic, and fresh herb broth. While the crustaceans were well cooked, the excessively salty broth rendered the garlic crostini unsuitable for dipping.

Generous portions of pasta can be had for very reasonable prices ($17-19). Schiaffoni del Calzolaio ($17) may not have been all that pretty to look at (the tubular shaped pasta are limply layered atop one another), but the combination of ground sausage, San Marzano tomatoes, white wine, crushed red pepper, herbs, and Pecorino-Romano sauce made for a complex, satisfying dish.

Chicken and pork dishes range from $15-19, while Carni (meat) dishes run from $19-29. Costoletta di Vitello ($29) included a heaping 16 oz. wood-grilled veal chop with crimini mushroom, sherry, and veal demi-glaze. Overall, the dish was more than adequate, although I personally didn’t taste the level of smokiness and char that usually accompanies these types of dishes. The meat was also a tad fatty and could have benefitted from a side of starch as opposed to green beans (albeit tasty ones). The Mazo di Giusepe ($29) featured a 16 oz. Black Angus sirloin with sea salt and grilled over hardwood charcoal. The tender meat was perfectly flavored and cooked, and benefitted from a drizzle of Tuscan olive oil as well as a pouring of warm gorgonzola cream sauce. Creative sides that serve 2-4 customers ($4/9) include Pisseli e Prosciutto, tender baby peas sautéed with Prosciutto di Parma.

Desserts (all $7) include Scripelle con Gelato, which features two miniature fried doughboys dusted with cinnamon sugar and served with vanilla bean gelato and warm Nutella spread. It’s a fun, comforting delicious treat. Siena also serves up its popular Budino di Panettone, bread pudding with Italian almond panetone (sweet bread) and served with amaretto, bourbon, brown sugar, and butter glaze.

Cocktails range from $8-10, and two standouts include a potent housemade sangria ($8) and a sparkling grape martini ($9), which blends grape vodka, proscecco, and cranberry juice. Siena also boasts an extensive wine list revolving around approximately fifty reds and another fifty whites from multiple countries and regions including Italy, France, New Zealand, Australia, Sonoma, and Napa. Most wines are reasonably priced ($35-50), while others veer to moderate price points ($85-95). Half bottles ($26-49) are also available, while handfuls of Interesting Red and White wines are promoted.

Service was excellent. Our meal was well paced, while our server was extremely knowledgeable, patient, and amiable.

Overall, Siena scores high for value. Its cuisine is better than much of what is produced in Boston’s North End, at only a fraction of the cost. Complimentary valet parking only boosts the restaurant’s stock. You may not be dining directly under the Tuscan sun at Siena, but it is certainly close enough.

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