Tazza

With its chic, inviting renovation and accomplished new menu, Tazza has morphed from hipster coffeehouse to stylish downtown restaurant.



Angel Tucker

Tazza orange starorange star

Tazza  250 Westminster St., Providence, 421-3300, tazzacaffe.com Hours Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Limited street as well as valet parking. Cuisine International, accomplished bazaar. Capacity A hundred plus. Vibe Urban chic in appearance but mellow in attitude. Prices Appetizers $4–$14; entrees $21–$30; desserts $6-$10. Karen’s picks Tazza salad, pork tacos, mocha crusted sirloin, Sunnyside tuna, udon bowl.
Key  Fair  Good  Very Good  Excellent half starHalf-star

 

Chef Ben Lloyd has a lot of practice with panache; he spent years at the helm of the original XO Cafe as well as the (slightly) more subdued Cafe Noir, which still handed out wild clouds of cotton candy to diners at the end of each meal. But his recent shift to the newly remodeled Tazza keeps him in a stylized spotlight and proves that his proficiency in dramatic food isn’t simply the influence of XO owner John Elkhay but, rather, Lloyd’s native tongue.

He finds a kindred spirit in Michael Corso, who turned his beatnik coffee shop into a polished restaurant more centered around a mod, well-stocked bar. Glass beakers may be decorative rather than functional but they’re a good indicator of what goes into G.M. and mixologist Amy Stetkiewicz’s cocktails as she regularly embraces six or more ingredients in a single glass. (Who knew a pairing of black pepper and pineapple would be copacetic?) 

Corso has found a model crowd to front his establishment: his carved-from-marble hostess towers over six feet and servers, dressed in black, hit the sweet spot between affected and ingratiating. Occasionally, diners comply as inked couples nuzzle at the bar and emaciated men in skinny jeans and fedoras hang across banquettes. But just as often, septuagenarians in beaded tunics hunker down at the communal table, which makes one wonder whether downtown is already branching out as the city’s most urbane quarter mile.

Regardless, Lloyd refuses to acquiesce to the mundane or the restrained. Roasted marrow bones, capers and grilled bread ($12) speak to his indulgent approach to food, which refuses to dissipate across an extensive (thirty-five-plus plates) menu. This could, frankly, be a mess. Not everyone can handle Japanese, French, Spanish, Mexican, Italian and American cuisine, but there’s an easygoing quality to Lloyd’s food that marries ambition and forthright execution rather happily. Small plates of Asian five-spice short ribs ($7) are almost traditional with the exception of a pile of spicy kimchee that brings life to the rich beef. Prawns wrapped in Serrano ham and served with Marcona almonds ($12) have a smoky depth that makes scallops and bacon look downright passe. Even pineapple-braised pork tacos ($16) pull off cultural authenticity without overlooking innovation. 

Lloyd brings the same multiculturalism to his entrees, though with less whimsy and broader vision. Appetizers, after all, demand interest for only a short period of time, while larger dishes need to hold up to many more bites of scrutiny. Pretension can grow weary and, consequently, Lloyd imparts a sense of classicism to his main dishes. Grilled striped bass from Block Island ($27) sits in a subtle garlic vanilla cream that offers just enough deviation from the norm to excite the palate. Sunnyside tuna ($28), sesame-encrusted, is dressed up with soy mirin caramel, perfectly paired with sticky rice that’s been seared to stone–pot crispiness. Even pork chops ($25), topped with a somewhat unmanageable pile of pea shoots, take on homey familiarity as they give way to a pair of spot-on humble apple and pancetta pierogis.

But the unexpected star of the menu harkens back to Lloyd’s steakhouse days. It’s tough to get excited about the ubiquitous sirloin these days, but Tazza’s version ($38) is not only deeply flavorful in its own right, its mocha crust and deconstructed Lyonnaise potatoes don’t even warrant a sauce. Lloyd’s love of that one bit extra, however, translates as a slice of pine nut truffle butter that oozes provocatively on top.

So why isn’t Tazza perpetually packed? In any other city it likely would be. It’s that rare breed of restaurant that manages to be everything to everyone — coffeehouse, salad stop, sports bar, cocktail depot, special occasion restaurant — if only everyone were actually downtown. There is some competition: a bar or two, (oddly) two Korean restaurants on the block and a cafe, as well. But none of them really covers the bases the way Tazza does, and none of them ratchets up the aesthetic ante in such dramatic fashion. Corso went all out with his renovation, and if a surfeit of stainless steel and worn-in wood can’t get a person to leave the sweatpants at home on a Saturday night, maybe there’s no hope for Westminster. 

If all else fails and the appeal of metro showmanship can’t tempt residents, there’s always the lure of dessert. Bernadette Cicione, former owner of Ocean State Chocolate, is in charge of sugar and she, like Lloyd, is intense in her approach. Though her dishes can be conceptually playful — often topped with homemade animal crackers or caramelized “krispies”  — she’s determined to get as much flavor as she can in each spoonful. Cheesecake ($8) on a paint splatter of raspberry sauce is rolled in chocolate shavings, perhaps the most moderate of Cicione’s desserts. Bolder is her chocolate Guinness tart ($8), a fudge-like wedge that offers sparks of salt and pepper amidst an unyielding wall of chocolate. And though the peanut butter cup ($8), a peanut-caramel mousse with chocolate ganache, sounds like child’s play, it, too, refuses to offer light and airy when the possibility of dark and dense is an option. Cicione will almost always choose bittersweet chocolate rather than the juvenile milk variety, a pretty good reflection of both her scope and her audience.

Tazza certainly had its days as a grad school hangout, awash in cargo pants and simple sandwiches. But the restaurant has grown up quickly, and the food has followed suit. Now it just waits for the masses to recognize its accomplishments.
 
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