Monday, June 16, 2014

Bacaro Boasts Finest Italian Cuisine in Providence

Take my advice: bypass the Hill (Federal) and head straight to the river to experience the finest Italian cuisine in all of Providence (yes, even exceeding the renowned Al Forno). Tucked away just outside of downtown Providence, adjacent to Brown University along the waterfront, Bacaro offers a treasure-trove of pleasures, from its extensive (admittedly exhaustive – hint: the menu is best enjoyed with larger groups) list of wines, cheeses, meats, and Italian tapas, its relaxed, yet polished service, to its tranquil, romantic al fresco small patio setting.

Sure, there are ties to the aforementioned Al Forno here, namely with its two prominent former employees, Chef Brian Kingsford and co-owner Jennifer Matta. And yes, there is that famous wood grilled pizza, here served up as an appetizer serving 2-4 people (but at Bacaro, it is graciously served with a cheeseless section to accommodate my wife’s dairy allergy – Al Forno pretentiously denied this request years back). But that is where the similarities end. Bacaro’s name originates from the Venetian word Bacari, which signifies a wine bar for friends to father for a quick bite and glass of wine. The restaurant therefore poses as an Enoteca (Italian wine bar), Salumeria (cured meats), and Cicchetteria (Italian tapas). There is also a sense of playful fun at Bacaro – take, for instance, that nifty checkbox menu from which customers can select their tapas! – that is lacking at the stuffier Al Forno. In lieu of Al Forno’s formal, if somewhat slightly outdated ambience that features a romantically lit interior shining over prim white tablecloths, Bacaro is housed inside a converted shipping building. Its first level consists of a bar to the left, a small, boisterous seating area to the right (so much so, that I’d recommend the patio on a nice spring/summer evening), and a lively, deli counter-style salumeria towards the back, where customers can either order or view the preparation of cured meats and cheeses. The second level offers more romantic views of the water and city skyline, along with an open kitchen.

Back to the food, most all of which is wonderful, starting with the razor-thin, nicely charred grilled pizza which is thrown into a wood oven that sends wafts of intense smoky aromas outside to our table. We order a pie topped with caramelized onions and goat cheese ($24), and it quickly evaporates from the plate. It’s sweet, tart, and fantastic, and I dare you to find a superior slice (outside of Al Forno’s) in all of Rhode Island (deepest apologies to you Caserta enthusiasts). We split a pasta entrĂ©e of tagliatelle with crab, uni, and lobster broth ($30). While the crab and uni barely register (making the dish a bit pricey for my taste), the pasta itself is the star. It’s fresh and addictive, given the kitchen’s innovative approach to infuse the noodles with the lobster stock. Like the pizza preceding it, the pasta quickly disappears from plain sight. Smaller sides are satisfying, including prosciutto di parma ($7), a generous portion of salt-cured ham that would have benefitted from any accompanying sauce or acid (spicy mustard, balsamic vinegar, honey) to pair with our complimentary bread. An assortment of olives ($6) featured spicy and mild varieties, while wood grilled figs layered with honey were homey, light, and downright delightful to pop into one’s mouth.

The cicchetti were consistently well executed. Starting with richer plates, the pan seared duck breast ($7) served on toasted, buttery brioche with rhubarb jam created salty-sweet harmony, while the crispy glazed pork belly ($7) was pure fatty goodness, from its moist, chewy interior to its crackling, sticky-sweet exterior. Although I could barely distinguish the different flavors amongst a trio of pan seared sausage, ($7), the meat was nicely smoked and tender, nonetheless. The lone misfire of the evening was the wood grilled ‘piatina’ ($7), grilled flatbread with chickpea puree, Jerusalem artichoke chips, smoked capsicum, and crispy parsley. I found the texture of the overly-crispy chips residing atop the crispy flatbread to be both heavy and repetitive, while the puree was bland and whose flavor was slightly offputting. Fortunately, the majority of the cicchetti were big hits at our table, showcased by arancini ($6), miniature breaded and fried risotto balls stuffed with mozzarella, which despite their creamy interior, did not fall into the trappings of most versions. These balls were surprisingly light and oil-free.

Be sure to save room for desserts, many of which are made to order and require customers to order at the beginning of their meals. Bacaro’s version of an ice cream sandwich is anything but traditional. Layered between two homemade chocolate brownies is homemade mint chocolate chip ice cream (here, white, not green, in appearance, and possessing a subtle, non-overpowering mint flavor). The sinful salted chocolate caramel tart ($14) consists of chocolate pastry filled with dulce de leche, topped with dark chocolate filling and sea salt. It’s rich, but not dense, and perfectly balances sweet with salty. Other desserts I wasn’t able to sample, but for which I’d gladly return: grappa scented custard filled bombolini ($10), little warm doughnuts filled with custard and topped with wildflower honey and toasted almonds. For anyone who has ever sampled Chef Kingsford’s wood grilled tarts at Al Forno, the seasonal strawberry and rhubarb (for two - $18) also seems enticing.

Cocktails are well balanced, if not nearly as complex as Bacaro’s cuisine. Housemade sangria is decent enough, although not nearly as tart as I would have liked. There are several Italian inspired cocktails, my favorite being the potent, refreshing Italian bellini martini, which included a splash of peach puree and lots of peach vodka, inspired by and with a nod to the bellinis prepared at Venice’s world-famous Harry’s Bar.

Service was exceptional. Our waiter was highly knowledgeable of the lengthy menu (no doubt an impressive feat), spot on with several recommendations, amiable, and created a leisurely pacing to the meal to accommodate the wide array of tapas that were ordered. Our table truly wished our evening on the patio would never end.

Given its exceptional food, service, and setting, Bacaro ranks amongst the very best restaurants in Rhode Island. It also ranks amongst one of my all-time favorite dining experiences. When a restaurant makes it difficult for you to leave, yet leaves you wanting to return for more, that’s the sign of a truly special dining spot. Outside of Italy, there may not be a better ‘bacari’ to nibble on small bites and sip on fine wine with friends.

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