It surprises me every time. One of my favorite delights in checking out restaurants is discovering over and over — usually in ethnic variation — that the simplest place can offer the best of meals.
|Gesualdi’s | 634 Hartford Ave, Providence | Mon-Thurs, 6:30 am-1:30 pm; Fri-Sat, 6:30 am-6 pm; Sun, 11:30 am-10 pm | Cash only | BYOB | Restroom not wheelchair-accessible | 401.751.6340|
This is especially true around here. Rhode Islanders aren’t food snobs: even after Al Forno and Providence got famous, Johanne Killeen and George Germon were still touting the down-home Mike’s Kitchen, in Cranston.
Gesualdi’s is a humble hole in the wall, a breakfast and lunch place tucked into a cramped space that can seat maybe two-dozen. When I got there at 12:30, hardly a spot was left. All eight stools at the counter were taken up by a workingman crowd. They were facing a wall loaded with family photos — heavy on the babies — and the image was sweetly fitting. A Yankees poster, plus another of Lou Gehrig, indicated that these were brave proprietors, here in the risky frontier of Red Sox Nation.
Little spots like this continue to embody, more than a century later, the genesis of Italian-American restaurants on the East Coast. Sometimes it was an old country grandmother whose good cooking led to opening up a boarding house; sometimes it was a son who paid good attention to Mama in the kitchen.
Peter Gesualdi opened this place with his brother a quarter-century ago, so apparently they were taught well. Now he runs it with his wife, Denise, behind the counter.
A marker board at the far end of the narrow room contained the few specials of the day. For sandwiches, there was marinated chicken and also pastrami. That last ingredient was bulging from a bun, with the whole challenging a big guy at the counter, so presumably all the sandwiches are generous.
A salad was described on the board as containing cold baby shrimp, corn, raisins, sliced peppers, and glazed walnuts ($7.95). My trusty restaurant scout Stuart, who had led me here, waxed nostalgic about a couple of such salads that he’d had here recently. One had marinated salmon and the other swordfish, both pronounced excellent. His first meal here, which brought him back, was a simple traditional dish of veal and peas.
What they do with lettuce was on display when we shared the appetizer of the day, crab cakes ($5.95). They came on a generous bed of mixed greens, red leaf, and baby spinach, as well as Romaine, which was dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette — a salad, not just a garnish.
Stuart was impressed with the crab cakes, and he wasn’t alone. There was a good amount of breading as well as crab, which kept down the price. It wasn’t just filler, but contained bits of roasted vegetables, which made it special, and a touch of cayenne heat.
Care is taken with the details here. When we asked for water, it came in Coke Classic paper cups — but with lemon wedges that we didn’t have to request.
There were only two main dishes on the board, so we each had one of them. I picked the veal cutlet Parmesan ($8.95) and could have chosen chicken ($6.95), which came with a separate large plate of rigatoni.
Stuart ordered the Italian combo ($6.95), a platter of fried eggplant, sausage, and large meatball that my pasta was plenty to complement. Strips of roasted red bell pepper atop them, red on red, retained some bite. We had quite a feast. The cutlet, pounded to tenderness, was enormous enough to need a platter rather than a plate. The sausage was sweet, rather than hot, which was a welcome change. The meatball had just the right density, and the plentiful eggplant was browned to perfection — neither of us have had better.
The tomato sauce was deeply flavorful, as only long cooking and the Bolognese addition of ground meat can provide. Apparently, the sauce is widely appreciated, because it’s available by the gallon ($12.10), as well as the quart ($6.45), as is their chowder and soup.
Speaking of which, we enjoyed our meal so much that having their chicken soup ($2.10/$2.75) for dessert seemed like a good idea. It was. Not over-salted, it had plenty of shredded chicken as well as those tiny beads of pasta, pastini, in every spoonful. I did take home the posted dessert, which was listed as a brownie — it was really a chocolate pan cake, and nothing to write home about.
Gesualdi’s. I’m nostalgic already. Goodness by the gallon.
Bill Rodriguez can be reached at email@example.com.
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