The Little Inn

Instant nostalgia
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  June 25, 2008

It was déjà vu all over again. The wilds of Johnston, the dinner-time hunger, the restaurant sign flickering on the horizon like palm trees in the desert. We mentally pumped the air simultaneously and rolled into the parking lot of the Little Inn Restaurant like it was an oasis.

The Little Inn | 401.231.0570 | 103 Putnam Pike, Johnston | Mon-Thurs, 4-9:30 pm; Fri-Sat, 4-10 pm; Sun, 11:30 am-10 pm | Major credit cards | Full bar | Sidewalk-level accessible
As we walked toward the entrance, our previous experience at the Russo family establishment came back. The roaring fire, the first-rate service, the wine award certificates sur-rounding the signed celebrity photographs, the most impressive of which read: “To my good friend Harold. Sincerely, Frank.”

The personality as well as the hospitality of an Italian family restaurant was immediately on display: walking into a dim barroom in which longshoremen would be comfortable, I noticed a glass-enclosed case holding a collection of fancily decorated tea cups and saucers.

The main dining room is also a fusion of rugged — dark oak captains’ chairs — and delicate — numerous Tiffany-style ceiling lamps. More collectibles and antiques were stashed here and there, from milk cans to a beautiful polished copper cash register. My favorite touch of it’s-here-because-I-like-it personalization was the gilt-framed Mona Lisa reproduction.

The extensive wine list is intelligent, going for value and regional strength, rather than national bias: a dozen Chiantis from Italy, of course, but almost as many Cabernet Sauvignons from California, and Chardonnays from all over the map. The 15 wines by the glass run from $7 to $11, and my Ruffino Chianti Classico was a bargain at $7.50.

The menu declares allegiance to “Slow food, prepared and cooked to your order, very carefully!” At this place that doesn’t sound like the usual restaurant consultant boilerplate.

Even before you look at the menu, there are a couple of immediate indications that prices are being kept down: white butcher paper over the tablecloths and butter in foil. That the latter is Cabot and isn’t served rock-hard are minor considerations, but considerate nonetheless.

Looking over the appetizers, we noticed the traditionally prepared calamari that we had especially enjoyed before. There was also snail salad, a favorite of mine that’s not on every Italian restaurant menu.

But it made sense to go for what the Russos were bragging about, so Pizza della Casa ($12) it was. I don’t know about you, but while I can appreciate the culinary aesthetics of a pizza treated like a minimalist canvas — with a dollop of this here, a smear of that there — a Jersey boyhood hardwired into me the nagging suspicion, pizza-wise, that more is usually more.

If there had been more asparagus and roasted sweet red peppers, as well as Portobellos and roasted garlic, the ingredients would have spilled over the sides. The sharp provolone quickly ad-dicted my taste buds to further bites, and the potato-flour dough was flavorful. This veggie-only pizza is worth traveling out of your way for — and this recommendation comes from someone who’s been known to add sausage and meatballs to fill out pepperoni pizzas.

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