Narragansett’s newest nightspot, Trio, aims to sate the beach-going masses by offering a menu that’s comforting to the core.
Photography by Angel Tucker
15 Kingstown Road, Narragansett, 792-4333, trio-ri.com. Open for lunch and dinner seven days a week. Reservations encouraged for dinner. Wheelchair accessible. Street and lot parking. Cuisine Italian comfort food (pizza and pasta) with strong ties to the sea. Generous wine list, as well as signature cock- (and mock-) tails. Capacity Nearly two hundred can congregate comfortably indoors, but diners are desperate to get a seat on the large patio during summer months. Vibe Cruise ship living room, without the waves. Price Appetizers $7 to $19, entrees $9 to $39. Karen’s picks Bolognese pizza, tortelloni and lobster, steaks.
Key Fair Good Very Good Excellent Half-star
Accept my humble apologies. It appears that my initial response—not entirely positive—to Newport Harbor Corporation’s latest waterside venture, Trio, was flawed. On a Tuesday night, the restaurant, which sits among the seasonal residences of Narragansett, seemed cavernous, and the staff desperate to maintain order among the already ordered. I stood for twenty minutes only to be seated at a table that (along with ten others) had been vacant from the time I walked in. Who, I thought as I passed the sixty-odd stools and bistro chairs in the bar area, can fill all of these seats in an uncertain economy?
Trio can. On the following weekend, with the restaurant still notably green, the bar was nearly four people deep and the tables in all three dining rooms full. Were it not for the rain, I would have expected a charter bus to drive up and deposit its occupants onto the 100-seat porch. The fact is, areas in which second homes make up most of the real estate don’t necessarily feel the economic crunch, and this one, clearly, was simply waiting for a community-building, congregational hub.
Sleek, steel-based open kitchen notwithstanding, there’s an Annapolis air about Trio, not only in its seafaring aesthetics but also in its founding-father Federal influence. Dark wooden blinds keep the setting sun at bay, while nautical prints and turn-of-the-century photographs ornament the walls. The mood, however, is still distinctly Rhode Island. “My company built this restaurant and I didn’t get an invitation to the opening party?” mused one local diner who was placated by laughter from at least five staff members who knew (or pretended to know) him. “Bring me another bottle of wine and maybe I’ll forget.”
It bears mentioning that Narragansett’s not exactly the Gen-X crowd. While the bar is jammed with people taking time off from a long work week or from their kids, a substantial portion of the dining rooms are filled with baby boomers and beyond. The corporate response to such a demographic is surprising, bordering on mind-boggling: Staff the floor not only with eye-candy (they’re behind the bar) but—gasp!—with women who might actually qualify for the AARP. It’s a modern miracle. And it should surprise few past the age of consent that it works. Throngs of new arrivals still don’t seem to detract management from circling the various tables with maternal ease, catering to the whims of the chocolate milk crowd (they’re here, too) and those who declared that they did indeed like Ike.
The menu is apropos to the surroundings: seafood in spades, along with a lot of perennially popular Italian. And, like the backdrop, there’s a corporate constancy. The kitchen is not looking for shock and awe but, rather, the proverbial front porch. Strengths, do however, show where least expected. Crab cakes and calamari are solid, though they don’t necessarily stand out from the oceanic crowd and are, perhaps, more of an appeasement to those determined not to leave their comfort zone.
Other fish is presented in a slightly more adventurous manner: Grilled shrimp ($12) is served with a trinity of one-dimensional sauces, but the slightly charred shellfish is bold enough to prevail. Smoking, on the other hand, is a trade-off for scallops ($24). The advantage is a deep, woodsy flavor, though the technique itself tends to toughen the scallops. Citrus reduction brightens the earth-bound dish, but the lemon farro risotto proves to be its most compelling component. In a restaurant that needs to get hundreds of hungry people fed, the wheat-based, less porous farro holds up like a champ on the warming queue.
The risotto isn’t an anomaly: Trio manages to do modern Italian extremely well. This is more than a passing compliment given casual Italian’s Where’s Waldo? ability to show up anywhere and everywhere and the ensuing weariness that diners
You can get artisan pizzas in a lot of places these days, but you can’t get many better than the ones here. True, they lack the intense flavors and crispy simplicity of an Al Forno grilled pizza, but they still manage to pull off eccentricity with laid-back ease. Triple cheese ($10) plays off of smoked tomato slices; whole clams dabble with scallions and bacon.
The potentially frightening French Dip pizza ($15), which features shaved prime rib, caramelized onion, mozzarella, horseradish and its own ramekin of au jus, manages to reassure skeptics. The kitchen (led by Maria Evans and manned by many) pulls back just soon enough to avoid a Cheesecake Factory overindulgence. The best example, however, is the Bolognese ($12), a pizza far more subtle than the name suggests. The tang of its scant layer of tomato-rich meat gravy asserts itself under a sprinkling of grana padano and, like the best informal food, begs to be eaten for breakfast the next day.
Trio asserts its ethnicity in pastas as well. The ubiquitous Venda variety shows up only on the kids’ menu, while all others are made in house. The sweet potato gnocchi ($14) defines lactose largesse, though a slightly gummy dough suffers a bit under a thick gorgonzola cream and candied walnuts, reminiscent of savory rice pudding. Other preparations do exactly what homemade pasta should: offer delicacy among the hearty, pleasure among the familiar. Bucatini with slow-simmered tomatoes and hot peppers ($14) banishes spaghetti to yesteryear while agnolotti in cream sauce ($16) gets the kick of spicy sausage that eluded the gnocchi.
The restaurant’s most expensive pasta, tortelloni and lobster ($24), marries European inspiration with the local surroundings and does it well. Toothsome pasta stuffed with truffle-tinged duxelles sits below a small mound of tender steamed lobster meat, offset by a limoncello cream. Here, rich and tart coalesce subtly but successfully.
NHC knows enough about the precarious restaurant business to indulge in the American obsession with steaks that knows no age or gender barriers. A la carte cuts ($29 to $39) are served with a variety of Tuscan-style sauces ranging from sun-dried tomato to caponata, while more casual steaks, such as a top sirloin, are served with (slightly overworked) smashed potatoes and a homegrown steak sauce. Nothing strays too far from household favorites, which, at its root, is what the restaurant is after. Pizza, pasta, modern renditions of green bean casserole and a dash of doting service all hope to bring diners home after a day at the beach.
Rhode Island certainly gets a lot of flak when it comes to the state’s small-town limitations. Yet its advantages are clear in this Narragansett venture where visitors are slapped on the back like family and called by their first names by meal’s end.
Be warned, however, that, though the staff seems to kick into high gear when the crowd swells, there are only so many burners in the kitchen and food does not come out at warp speed. Take the time to order a drink.
If there’s one culinary area that falters a bit, it’s dessert. So eager was the restaurant to define itself as Italian, it may have missed a few steps in broad appeal. Rustic concoctions such as sweet pistachio trifle and coarse lemon olive oil cake with mandarin oranges ($7) are heavy after a substantially starchy meal, and not necessarily compelling enough to overcome satiation. A plate of pastries, including wine biscuits, biscotti and a very grainy cannoli, procured only the faintest of interest. Better to opt for a scoop of vanilla or hazelnut-biscotti gelato, which aren’t complicated but, in this case, that’s a plus.
Regular diners are willing to overlook these small stumbles. Because, as small as Rhode Island may be, its residents are strong-willed, and nobody in Narragansett is going to be persuaded to give up their beloved, albeit new, front porch.