Between 1898 and 1932, approximately 54,000 Italian immigrants arrived in Providence, settling in and around Federal Hill. Atwells Avenue buzzed with markets, bakeries, and retail shops, though many of those were gone by the late ’60s. In a pleasing turnaround, Providence’s rising stock brought fresh life to Federal Hill in the ’90s, resulting in a street with restaurants instead of stores, and enabling some long-time businesses to expand and flourish.
Cindy Salvato, a cookbook author and certified pastry chef who taught at Johnson & Wales for more than a decade, now runs a culinary tour of the neighborhood that is loads of fun, even on a frigid recent winter day. We began at Tony’s Colonial Market, a mainstay on the Hill, where Salvato pointed out several Italian food items that might be overlooked by a novice. Along the way, she related recipes and intriguing facts about the ingredients themselves: Brass machines extrude the dough of one brand of pasta, giving more ridges to the finished product and a better surface to which the “gravy” can adhere; San Marzano tomatoes get that special taste from the volcanic soil in which they grow.
Throughout the tour, Salvato cheerfully introduced cooks and storeowners and had them explain a bit about what they do. Her fondness for them was evident, and they were voluble and hospitable. At Tony’s, we tasted two kinds of prosciutto, one cured and one cooked, and a special imported extra sharp provolone. At Roma Gourmet across the street, we were greeted with another platter of cheese and meat, this time with Genoa salami, capicola, provolone, and a Calabran cheese called Crotonese.
Roma’s deli counter features homemade Tuscan sausage and braccioli, the latter stuffed with pancetta and prosciutto, and arancini — rice balls shaped like oranges. Roma also has a small bakery/café, with biscotti, cookies, zeppoles, and several variations on cannolis, some with ricotta filling and some with a pastry cream. I definitely recommend the ricotta ones. We each nibbled a small cannoli, its powdered sugar dusting our winter jackets.
After that sweet snack, we moved on to Venda Ravioli’s ravioli-makers. Venda’s hand-filled raviolis, available at their Atwells store, certain restaurants, and gourmet shops around the state, are made in a room that just barely accommodates four women each standing over a butcher block surface. Squares of pasta dough from Venda’s nearby factory are folded and pinched into tortellonis or agnolottis, or molded into raviolis. The ravioli dough is placed over a mold and pressed gently to create pockets filled from a pastry tube before another layer of dough is placed on top. In the small bakery behind the ravioli room, two bakers turn out half a dozen kinds of bread, plus focaccia and pizza. We were treated to a selection of Venda’s olives and peppers with a chunk of bread.
And we hadn’t yet reached Scialo Bros. Bakery. Carol Gaeta, co-owner and daughter of founder Luigi Scialo, who worked at the business into his “early hundreds,” gave us a thorough behind-the-scenes tour. Gaeta showed us how the huge ovens fire up, how specific bread loaves are shaped, how frosting roses are shaped for a birthday cake. This venerable business still makes almost everything, including their cannoli shells, from scratch. The line for their zeppoles begins at 5 am on St. Joseph’s Day (March 19), the only time they fry these traditional pastries, now usually baked. Scialo’s homemade torrone, a nut and meringue nougat, is legendary for good cause.