Cranston, and particularly Knightsville, is an obvious culinary epicenter for Italian cuisine — from the posh and pricey (Caffé Itri) and renowned portions (Marchetti’s) to a smattering of places for those in the know (Mike’s Kitchen). The host neighborhood is mainly known for the annual St. Mary’s Feast, an all-things Italian celebration along Park Avenue.
Tony Papa’s Restaurant exudes neighborly charm and a relaxed atmosphere within its unassuming storefront confines. The cozy dining room, wrapped in bright fuchsia walls and a motif abundant with angels, has enjoyed seven successful years in another strip plaza in the heart of Knightsville. A handsome bar is the focal point of the small, L-shaped dining room, with less than 10 tables and a handful of booths, which quickly filled up within an hour of our early Monday night visit.
Tom and I seemed to be the only first-timers here, with a room full of regulars coming and going, from a pair of moms with kids in tow, to couples lingering at a corner table after sharing a mountainous order of seafood fra diablo.
We glanced at the online menu (tony-papa.com) before arriving, a helpful move considering the 20 or so starters. We passed on what some may consider a pricey $13 for three shrimp cocktail and $10 for a loaf of garlic bread with mozzarella, diced pepperoni, tomatoes, and peppers that could well accompany a cold six-pack.
But the Italian potato skins sounded like a steal at $7, topped with a homemade veal Bolognese sauce, mozzarella, and diced pepperoni, although the artichoke casserole ($7) won out, a creamy and simple concoction that didn’t drown the star component and beckoned for an extra basket of bread.
We also opted for the calamari Modena ($10), Tony Papa’s take on the increasingly popular balsamic-reduction style. While the rings were tender enough, the dish could’ve benefited from another toss or two in the tasty reduction that delivered a nice, spicy kick.
Our waiter admitted it was his first week on the job, so we tried to ease into the usual barrage of questions, later overhearing an apparent regular give him the “Trust me — they’ve done it for me before.” A few tempting casserole dishes wafted by, such as the lasagna-inspired ravioli Michael ($14.95), layered with sausage and meatballs, and eggplant Florentine ($13.95) with ricotta and spinach.
But we were set in our respective surf and turf cravings. I settled for the sirloin (the only cut offered), while Tom eyed the fra diablo. Neither soup nor salad is included, but we overheard another waiter offer gnocchi or cheese ravioli, for a small additional charge, over the pasta or veggie/potato accoutrement. We were disappointed that this option wasn’t offered when we asked about pasta options a second time minutes later.
A few different add-on steak toppings are offer¬ed, including the “Knightsville,” an all the way variation with hot peppers, mushrooms, and onions, for an extra four bucks. I chose the “Saint Mary” style, topped with fresh mozzarella and tomatoes, for an additional $5.
Cooked to a perfect medium, the mammoth 12-ounce ($20) sirloin (their one-pounder must be a Brontosaurus) was tender and flavorful, although the melted mozzarella and diced tomatoes didn’t add much. A glance at that mound of gnocchi passing by and the simultaneous arrival of my simple green beans and a plain, split roasted potato had the eyes and stomach envious.