Centro Restaurant and Lounge

At the Westin, it’s out with Agora and in with Centro. But will upscale Italian woo diners Downcity?

Photography by Angel Tucker

Centro orange starorange starhalf star

Centro  1 West Exchange St., Providence (at the Westin), 228-6802. Hours Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. Reservations suggested. Wheelchair accessible. Valet parking. Cuisine Central Italian with New England accessories. Capacity  The dining room holds eighty with twenty more at the bar. Vibe Traditional men’s club meets modern lounge. Prices Appetizers $8–$16; entrees $21–$36; desserts $9. Karen’s picks Salads, ravioli, seafood.
Key Fair Good Very Good Excellent half starHalf-star

There’s a lot to admire about Centro’s staging. Its deeply hued wood-covered walls, bold red ceiling and expansive front bar exude a maturity that’s hard to muster in small restaurants and often traded in for the sake of trend in larger establishments. Housed in the Westin Providence, Centro proclaims a “cool city vibe” — a moniker that belies the urban rusticity and geographic sprawl of the space. It’s big and aggressive in its aesthetic, sated with riveted leather chairs and massive farm tables that can hold a dozen oenophiles. In fact, it’s the intrinsic warmth of the restaurant that makes it homey. It is lovely to look at, comfortable to sit in and
intriguing enough to hold one’s interest, even if local diners haven’t caught on to its quiet opening and the bird’s nest chairs at the bar are sometimes vacant. Hotel restaurants are notoriously tough to fill, this one even more so given the number of families who meander across the skywalk to eat cheesecakes in repetitive oblivion. But where predecessor Agora offered heightened American fare, Centro is strictly Central Italian, a cuisine that traditionally does well in these parts.

Executive Chef Ryan Escudé began his career working under The Inn at Little Washington’s Patrick O’Connell and eventually returned to Rhode Island as sous chef to Jules Ramos — and he shows both influences in his approach to Italian cuisine. He is mindful of minute detail, particularly aesthetic, but aware that Rhode Islanders often look for a familiar ingredient in a sea of internationalism. Point Judith calamari is on the menu ($12), topped with a briar patch of fried zucchini, though both were batter heavy and not quite crisped. More indicative of Escudé’s American-Italian sensibilities is a grilled shrimp salad served with bundles of tumbleweed greens, crimson pomegranate seeds and dressed in a meyer lemon vinaigrette ($14). It covers all grounds, from rich to bright, steadfast in its philosophy that overindulgence is a thing of beauty. And Centro is certainly not afraid to embrace excess.

A pair of duck confit crespelle ($15) could only appeal to hedonists and masochists, traits that, truthfully, define a good many chefs. Though it’s become mainstream fun to deep-fry avocados or stuff bacon into chocolate bars, they’re more one-bite adventures than full-plate commitments. So while duck confit is hard to beat and heavy cream is all sorts of good, it’s tough to go eight rounds with a marriage of the two. The melting duck goes unnoticed on your tongue after it’s been coated in cream, which is, ultimately, what an extended simmer in fat is all about. A single raviolo ($12) has grand potential; paper thin pasta stuffed with braised rabbit and served with a spattering of sweet prunes is a masterful combination of sweet and savory. But the overly browned butter dominates, and a cascade of toasted walnuts takes away from the subtlety of the dish, leaving its proximity to 
perfection just out of reach.

As for entrees, they do bear more simplicity than first courses, though the mantra of “too much” still applies, often in the reduction of sauces that end up so concentrated they have to be consumed in teaspoon portions. A twelve-hour-braised lamb with gnocchi ($25) was so salty that the flavors went unappreciated and even the potato pasta couldn’t dissipate the intensity of the sauce. The saving grace? A quintet of butter glazed chestnuts that, like the earlier prunes, had a beautiful subtle sweetness, but weren’t integral to the dish. Same goes for the cod ($25), a massive, gorgeous piece of fish in saffron mussel broth, which was over-seasoned by way of slow braising rather than infused with subtle flavors of the Mediterranean. There are better executions of basics. Ricotta and rabe agnolotti ($21) are creamy and coated with a vibrant tomato sauce and toasted pignolli. It’s a small serving of a half dozen moon-shaped agnolotti ($21), but the flavors are bold enough to compensate. As with many modern restaurants, Centro has a house pork chop ($26) that’s gargantuan on the plate, but this adaptation is surprisingly tough from too much cooking.

Given the variable customer base, it might have been safer to go more mainstream with desserts. Not only do gelato and tiramisu appeal to traveling kids and the business crowd, they come off as easy wins for a burgeoning restaurant still finding its sweet spot. Centro does manage the classics with proficiency but more detailed desserts prove problematic, from a dry ricotta cheesecake baked on a base of poached pears (that kept trying to escape by sliding out the bottom) to an almond milk panna cotta that lacked the distinct nuttiness that almond imparts. A disappointing way to end a meal that, at least in the introductory courses, suggests success is in arm’s reach.

Centro certainly faces challenges that other restaurants don’t. Though they have a captive audience, there’s competition from every corner: three steakhouses in walking distance, a treasure trove of kiddie-friendly food across the street and a cache of casual cuisine around the perimeter. It’s tough to emerge victorious under those conditions — though pasta and braised meats are strong contenders given that there’s an Italian deficit in Downcity. Can Escudé make it work? Eventually, yes. With a little more restraint, Centro can hold its own.

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