The small town of Bristol has more than its complement of fine restaurants, with longstanding Roberto’s still one of the leaders of the pack. What makes Roberto’s stand out among Rhode Island’s scores of Italian restaurants are the kitchen’s signature dishes, offering delicious variations on familiar items, and the intimate dining rooms, one with nine tables and one with only four.
Roberto’s | 301 Hope St, Bristol | Sun-Thurs, 5-9 pm; Fri-Sat, 5-9:30 pm | Major credit cards | Full bar | Sidewalk-level access | 401.254.29732
The tiny space is reminiscent of traditional wine bars in Italy — there’s even a small bar tucked between the two dining areas, and also a great wine list. The white on white linens and small vases of fresh flowers announce the restaurant’s serious ambitions. And the food matches those expectations royally.
Reading through the salads, my friend Nina and I found several tempting possibilities. Roberto’s Tuscan bread salad has fresh vegetables sautéed with shallots, cannellini beans, the requisite bread cubes, and a touch of rosemary. The increasingly de rigueur goat cheese salad had roasted apples and roasted tomatoes with a mustard-thyme vinaigrette.
Moving beyond that category, however, we found among the appetizers a cranberry cocktail sauce for the shrimp; house-made polenta with mushrooms and scallions, which was smothered in a grilled zucchini tomato sauce; and stuffed grilled eggplant rolls, with breadcrumbs and chopped hard-boiled egg inside ($9). The latter won the toss, with a hefty marinara surrounding four rolled eggplant slices that were very good.
The rest of the menu lists a baker’s dozen of pasta and seafood entrées; two offerings each of beef and pork, and a dozen different preparations for either veal or chicken. We considered the “Roberto,” with scallions, prosciutto and roasted tomatoes in a lemon Dijon sauce with rice; and the “Nina,” because of its name, a pink sauce with spinach over penne.
But in the end, we returned to study the seafood and the pastas. The lobster and crab combo in an orange liqueur-rosemary sauce was tempting, as were the “shrimp Pepe Nero” in a black pepper-cream sauce, and the cod Roberto, with lemon and Dijon, served with roasted orzo. But it was cod scarpriello ($17) that captured my fancy and, as it turned out, my heart.
This was one of the best dishes I’ve had in a long time. The cod was roasted with a light sauce that incorporated the brininess of capers and olives, the sweetness of red roasted peppers, and the hot/vinegary kick of sliced pepperoncini. Each of those tiny ingredients played off each other with tuneful harmonies, never drowning out the freshness of the cod. The mashed potatoes and buttered snow peas that accompanied the fish were equally tasty.
Nina, meanwhile, gravitated toward the traditional by choosing lasagna ($14) that had sliced sausage and meatballs as well as ricotta in its layers. Both meat add-ins enriched the noodle dish beyond its usual self, making it too filling to finish, but yielding a great take-home lunch. (In fact, a sign in the restroom mentions that everything at Roberto’s is available for takeout, a not-so-usual practice for an upscale restaurant.)
For dessert, we couldn’t resist the “Roberto’s special” — a caramel flan ($7). This was an unusual interpretation that I hadn’t encountered before. More like a very smooth crème brûlée, this custard was in sharp contrast to Latin American flans in which the eggs dominate, and the dessert may be quite wobbly on a plate. In both cases, however, the flan is enhanced by a caramel sauce. Here, it was drizzled over and around the custard, along with a dark chocolate sauce. We all but licked the platter clean.
Wines at Roberto’s, both reds and whites, are almost exclusively California or Italian, from out-of-the-way vineyards, though there are a few from Australia, New Zealand, and France. There are also 18 bottles in “Robert’s Private Reserve” that range from $44 to $195. At Roberto’s brand-new outpost, on lower Thames Street in Newport, the policy is still BYOB, but the menu features many of the Bristol spot’s customer favorites.
Indeed, it’s obvious from a mother and young daughter who lingered at the bar, and from the boisterous table of six in our dining room that Roberto’s is frequented by locals, as well as those of us from the other side of the bay.
The one drawback to the front dining room is that if a bunch of rather loud Rhode Islanders are enjoying themselves in that small space, it’s impossible to hear yourself, never mind your dining partner. That said, the fabulous food and friendly service are definitely worth it!
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