Just because a reputable restaurant has long been entrenched in Providence’s dining scene for several years doesn’t automatically make it a fine dining destination. You see, fine dining, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, comes down to two simple factors: the quality of an establishment’s cuisine, but of equal importance, the level of service that one receives. Café Nuovo - a restaurant located in downtown Providence (in the Citizens Plaza building) that is well-regarded for both its global cuisine (the ambitious, fusion-like menu boasts American, European, Asian, and Island-influenced dishes) and its romantic waterfront dining, checks off on the former but, unfortunately, miserably fails on the latter.
First, let’s begin with the good news. On the whole, the majority of the cuisine emanating from the restaurant’s kitchen strike just the right notes. Take, for instance, a marvelously crispy thin-crust pizza ($18), simply prepared with garlic and evoo which accentuate the sweetness of shaved red onions that cut against the sweetness of thinly-sliced pieces of prosciutto. The dish manages to be hearty yet light, a marvel of a dish that so delighted our table that my wife and I decided to re-create the recipe the very next evening in our kitchen, calories be damned. Less successful was a disappointing dish of calamari + shrimp ($15), both types of fish fried and breaded with such heavy-handedness that I could honestly not distinguish between the two. Not only was the accompanying trio of condiments (a marinara-like Pomodoro sauce, banana-pepper relish, and spicy remoulade) bland in flavor but were served in small dishes for which we did not receive spoons for application.
Entrees were strong, including a short rib ravioli ($27) packed with flavorful meat, although the short rib apparently wanted to roam freely outside of the pasta and its ricotta interior, which made for slightly challenging consumption. One dining companion swooned over her risotto with jumbo lump crab ($29), a sentiment that I shared over a dish also packed with generous pieces of seafood including littlenecks, shrimp, and scallop. For non-meat lovers, a vegetarian orrechiette ($25) definitely hit the spot, chalk full of artichoke valoute, sugar snap peas, fava beans, tomatoes, pearl onions, and oyster mushrooms. The dish of the night, however, was unquestionably the stuffed rigatoni ($28), a majestic tower of perfectly cooked al dente pasta that somehow stands upright, with each tube miraculously infused with pieces of veal, prosciutto, mozzarella, and portabello, and topped with a rich portabello-madeira sauce. It’s decadent and irresistible – calories, once again, be damned.
Speaking of decadent, Café Nuovo’s desserts are a fine culinary conclusion to our meal. While a gooey chocolate-peanut butter sundae (including a house made peanut butter cookie) impresses, it’s the Pot of Mousse that is literally and figuratively the eye-candy that leaves its impression on the table. Set atop of raspberry and mango sauces resembling the Waterfire event that the outdoor piazza often overlooks in summertime, creamy dark and white chocolate mousse and cappuccino tartufo are enveloped in a chocolate pot, whose exterior bears the restaurant’s handwritten insignia while a little chocolate handle adorns the top of the dish. It’s grand viewing pleasure without being pretentious, and more importantly, it’s delicious.
Now onto the bad news, which hinged on our service, or complete lack thereof. Our server’s name was Richard, which we only managed to garner by way of our bill, as he never formally introduced himself to us. Richard packed it in from the moment we were seated by the General Manager. Shall I count the ways? Neither one smile nor one recommendation throughout the evening. Unless of course, one considers “Six of one dozen…” when asked to compare two Pinot Noirs, or “That guy over there seemed to enjoy this type of drink” when I clearly inquired about an altogether different type of cocktail. Unbearable stretches where water glasses went unfilled, wine lists weren’t provided, bread baskets never arrived (resorting to us asking a busboy to bring this to our table). Wrong drinks brought to the table. Wrong meals brought to the table (more on that later). Rudely pulling aside more seasoned waiters (even when reciting specials) with questions he was unequipped to answer. As for our final bill, it was overcharged by $55, stemming from the aforementioned two incorrect meals. “Oh, I knew that could have been a problem on the bill,” he coldly replied. You didn’t bother to check the bill before you set it on our table? Richard, poor Richard, how you have managed to completely sabotage our meal.
In spite of Café Nuovo’s often inspired cuisine, it pains me to implore readers to seek far better alternatives in Providence for fine dining. For a $200-plus bill, one expects polished service. Instead of an informed, personable, attentive server, we were left with poor Richard, whose motto was clearly ‘Service be damned.’