SOHO BY THE SEA The ristorante.
We're used to Italian restaurants wooing us with decor that reminds us of lovely Venice or Rome, as they try to strike notes of nostalgia for cities we may never have been to. SoHo, a three-month-old place in Narragansett (the former site of Cheeky Monkey), knows that trying to make Italy chic would be a yawn for us — this is Rhode Island, after all — so the visual element is New York.
When you walk in, an elaborate panorama of Manhattan skyscrapers catches your eye above the bar. Here and there elsewhere, intricate bas relief pieces by artist Charles Fazinno pop out, inviting you to explore tiny details of the city. The rest of the decor is correspondingly hip, from blown glass perched up high to a cartoon-style figure painting by Romero Britto near us. And the tall lamp on our table was powered by oil, not one of those more practical battery-powered flickering gizmos. It's the little things.
On each table was an unopened bottle of the current wine special, Apothic Red, usually $40 per bottle but now $32. Instead of choosing from their varied wine list, I was attracted to the specialty cocktails — $10.50, 10 ounces — because one of them, the Amaretto martini, contained some of my favorite ingredients. As well as the almond liqueur of its name, it offered a sweet residue of muddled cherries as a finishing bonus.
The two-sided laminated menu you are handed is short and sweet, with starters on one side, pastas and main dishes on the other. The word from the next table was that "the calamari and the crab cakes are excellent," but we demurred — there is never a surprise with the former being prepared well and Johnnie is allergic to the latter. There were fried smelts ($9.75) among the dozen appetizers, an indication that traditional as well as more popular items are appreciated. We considered starting with the polenta ($9), which contains broccoli and mushrooms and is served under a sausage pizziola sauce.
But we decided to go for a pizza, usually a good indication of kitchen capability. There is one for meat lovers ($15), a margherita pizza ($10.50) that you can embellish with further ingredients, and a vegetarian version ($13), which we chose. Good decision. It had to have mushrooms and roasted red peppers, naturally, and it also had spinach, but my favorite touch was the artichoke hearts, which went so well with the plentiful rest. Thin crust, of course. Alongside the grilled pizza we shared a massive Caesar salad ($8). The fresh lemon, instead of the creamy dressing one usually gets, pleased Johnnie. A point for variety.
Among the pasta dishes, one temptation was the aglio e olio ($16.50), but its additional ingredients largely repeated the pizza's. I chose what was billed as "Squid Red Sauce" ($18.50), which proved satisfying. Nearly tentacle-free, there were plenty of calamari in the tangy tomato sauce, salted with anchovies, over the nicely cooked linguini. I was a happy camper.