Review: Ralph’s Bull & Claw Tavern

So much more than pub food
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  January 10, 2012

OLD WORLD CHARM awaits at Ralph’s.
Time was, a place that called itself a tavern purveyed meals as well as drinks to weary travelers. Nowadays at most such places you might snag some buffalo chicken wings at best. Not so with Ralph's Bull and Claw Tavern, in the upper reaches of North Providence. It did spring from a pub 15 years ago, but since then loyal locals have come to rely on its good food.

And cheap eats as well. There was an 8-for-$8 entrée special on the menu insert, including fish and chips, mussels zuppa, chicken pot pie, and eggplant rollatine. Even better, dinners are half-price on the first and last Sundays of the month. Beat that, fast food joints.

The larger dining room wasn't open when we showed up on an un-busy weekday night, so we sat at the small group of tables across from the bar. The area has personality — that of Ralph: from boxing pictures to Babe Ruth chatting with Lou Gehrig to Annie Oakley beaming over a chest full of medals. His heroes.

Ralph Demarco Jr. is also a physical presence here, a friendly gray-haired gentleman sitting at the bar or roaming about asking customers if they're enjoying their meals. His family operated the place as My Father's Pub from 1978 to 1987. He told us it was vacant for a few years and, after extensive renovations, he opened the tavern. Ralph knows enough to not man the kitchen himself; for someone who doesn't love cooking, that's not unlike working in a salt mine. Sometimes his cousin Richard Demarco, who lives upstairs, comes down and chefs up some family recipes.

The regular menu was climbing toward 200 offerings when it was pared back by half a few months ago. There is a long page of pastas and another of appetizers, soups, and salads. There are many Italian dishes besides the pastas, such as chicken and veal saltimbocca as well as parmigiano. There is lemony Francaise as well, though incongruously there also were "Freedom Fries," which I hadn't seen on a menu since we went into Iraq. Another three dozen items are on an insert that can change daily, including the 8-for-$8 specials.

Looking over what to start with, I was strongly tempted by the "Soprano Shrimp Cocktail" ($11), less by TV nostalgia than by the prospect of five large Gulf shrimp wrapped in prosciutto rather than bacon, atop mesclun. The compromise with my dining companion was close and probably better: "Asparagia di Soprano" ($10). The asparagus spears, described as "hearty," were thick but surprisingly tender, wrapped in prosciutto and grilled. With mixed greens in a champagne vinaigrette, they were worth the price even without the two fat seared sea scallops. I was glad I didn't settle on my third choice: escargots champagnione ($10), which I would have had with those Freedom Fries, just to be a wiseguy. We also had the soup of the day ($3/$5), a tasty tomato-based chicken vegetable, ingredients chopped to get some of everything in every spoonful.

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