When Brenda and Mike Nardolillo bought Provencal Bakery six years ago, they were following their bliss, going back to the made-from-scratch baking and cooking that they’d loved to do in their teen years. They'd both worked at other jobs for many years, and one of those small-world Rhode Island moments occurred when I introduced myself after lunch and Mike said, "I used to be your mailman!"
But the couple returned to their first passion to create foods from their backgrounds — Syrian/Lebanese/Irish (her grandmother’s baklava) and Italian (his mom’s eggplant parmesan); from friends’ recipes (Kacie’s Key lime squares and Beth’s hermits); and from former owner Med Mehdaoui’s bread recipes, which he learned from an elderly baker in Marseilles.
Brenda yearned for a café with their artisan breads in hot and cold sandwiches, with homemade soups alongside them, and with tempting treats, such as cupcakes, cookies, pies, and other pastries. What she got was her dream diner, all retro in turquoise, gray, and sparkly silver stools at a low countertop. There's also a red, '50s-look clock and posters of early ’60s personalities on the walls.
Provencal Bakery | 401.845.9313 | 750 Aquidneck Ave, Middletown | Mon-Fri 7 am-6 pm; Sat 7 am-4 pm | Major Credit Cards | Sidewalk-Level Access
A large blackboard lists the sandwiches, an add-on whiteboard shows the specials, a large pastry case holds the sweets, and shelves display the fresh-baked bread (from the bakery itself, which is almost next door). One of the most popular lunch dishes is the Southwestern chopped salad, a mix of iceberg and raw veggies, with black beans, corn, tortilla strips, and a chipotle dressing, with a choice of grilled chicken, tuna salad, or chicken salad on top.
That day they were also offering a Mediterranean salad, a gyro sandwich, and two wonderful soups (in addition to the clam chowder): a lentil and a fish chowder, the latter a non-creamy version, with red bliss potatoes, corn niblets, plenty of fish, and a bit of hot spice — absolutely delicious. "Soup specialist" Earl Smith brews them up fresh each day.
Brenda makes up Provencal’s chicken salad: "You have to pull it off with your hands to get the right size chunks, then just add mayo, a little celery, salt, and pepper — no sugar." That care and simplicity lets the chicken shine through, whether in a cold sandwich, a grilled panini, or morphed into curried chicken salad.
My friend Baiba had the curried version on country white bread, with a slice of Monterey Jack, lettuce, sliced red onion, and a bit of Dijon ($7.15, with a generous helping of German potato salad). It was a very tasty piled-high sandwich, but our attention was captured by the just-right vinegar-and-oil dressing on the potato salad.
My tuna salad was assembled with the same care as the chicken salad: albacore tuna, celery, mayo. My sandwich, on whole wheat, with Swiss and Dijon, was so thickly stacked that its second half became my supper.
For Bill's supper, I took home an eggplant parmesan sandwich ($6.75) with a nice ciabatta bread (called Provencal or panini), and meatball sliders (four for $6.50). Since they didn’t have the slider buns that day, Mike cut the country white into triangles to go with the meatballs, hand-made by Brenda, with Provencal’s own bread crumbs. The tomato sauce on both the eggplant and the meatballs was very good, a long-standing specialty of Mike's. The ham-and-cheese croissant that filled Bill at the following day's lunch was large, flaky, and stuffed with ham and Swiss.