Big portions and even bigger personalities intersect at Café Longo, a back-to-basics eatery that’s the talk of the Hill.
154 Atwells Avenue, Providence, 228-6550, cafelongo.com. Open for dinner from 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, from 3 p.m. on Sunday. Reservations are not accepted but there is a call ahead list. Wheelchair accessibility is doubtful in a space this small. Valet parking. Cuisine Old school Italian. Capacity Just shy of fifty diners with a small army of servers. Vibe Pinstripe suits and an iPod full of classics.. Prices Appetizers $7–$14, entrees $18–$36, desserts $7. Karen’s picks Salads (including ones with meatballs), rigatoni with Sunday gravy, veal any which way, cannoli.
Key Fair Good Very Good Excellent Half-star
I’m not going to lie. I’ve had my fair share of substandard meals on Federal Hill. And though food may be a subjective business, many of the issues lie with the ability to differentiate oneself in a sea of homogeny.
With nearly two dozen Italian restaurants in a three-block area, restaurateurs find themselves caught between traditional cuisine and the modern ingredients that lure a new generation over the threshold. In time, restaurants on the Hill have quietly separated themselves into two camps:
Old School and Young, which speak as much to the clientele as the menu. Remarkably, it’s a conflict Jerry Longo’s not really feeling.
When Longo opened his modest thirteen-table, eponymous restaurant last year, it was built around family. Brother Frank manages the front of the house (which is arm’s length from the back of it), wife Connie is in charge of the desserts, various cousins work the line and more distant relatives fill the seats. Even the menu is a family album of sorts, a wistful look back to Sunday dinners and weekday meals around the kitchen table. And then, of course, there’s culture. Though the balsamic may go back to antiquity, the setting (earth tones accented with splashes of silver) is rooted in the twentieth century, smack-dab between It Happened In Brooklyn and Scarface.
Three suspended televisions hover over the tiny space, which might make sense if your family spends its mealtimes in front of the small screen. As Robin And The 7 Hoods plays, fedoras and all, it’s hard not to notice the Longo clan — most of whom are dressed in restaurant black — standing in Rat Pack posture behind the diminutive bar alternating grins and glowers at the incoming diners. The silence is broken as Frank extends a hug to familiar guests: Big Joe, who wants to know why the kitchen didn’t make soup tonight, and Maria, who’s in from Smithfield, or as the Longo crowd calls it, “God’s country.” You can’t write it any better.
But behind the affect and the anomalous Streisand (who occasionally interrupts Sinatra on the playlist), there’s food. Plenty of food. The menu’s not underpriced, but the portions border on obscene, evidenced by the “famous” meatball salad ($14). This isn’t an avant-garde meat mixture; it’s a pound of mama’s love. Washed with tomato sauce and served with a sharp red wine vinegar salad, it’s proof that there’s nothing contrived nor disappointing about pure nostalgia. Same goes for the Roman supli ($9), arancini’s cousin without the contemporary fanfare. Deep fried Arborio gives way to creamy mozzarella — a kid’s dish gone grown-up.
Longo does pepper the menu with some out of the ordinary options — black tip shark was enigmatic enough for the waiters to compare it reassuringly to swordfish. When one hesitant diner complained that he didn’t like his ﬁsh ﬁshy, waiter Chico chimed in with the Longo creed: “I don’t ever want fish that tastes fishy. I want fish that tastes like fudge.” Cut to Frankie rolling his eyes with narrative voiceover: “Is this guy a character, or what?” Who needs casting agents?
It’s clear that the culinary soul of this small space is the expected, the customary, the just plain good. Macaroni (what’s pasta?) is served carbonara, amatriciana, alfredo, but Longo’s beacon is simple Sunday gravy ($18). Slabs of tender tomato-braised pork obscure a heaping portion of al dente rigatoni, served at volcanic heat in order to appreciate the ice-cold scoop of fresh ricotta that sits alongside. Once again, nothing fancy, nothing affected. Still, worth fighting over, Sinatra style.
Meats rely on more technical proficiency though nothing strays from the menu’s homestyle base. Veal and chicken are the foundational proteins, served parmigiana, marsala or piccata with a variation on Milanese where sauteed rabe takes on arugula’s role. All are good though perhaps not special enough to become Atwell’s quintessential versions. Off the menu specials vary but are usually heartier cuts, including chops and steak. (When Frank booms “Are you mentioning the Angus?” to the three servers in earshot, every diner’s head nods in compliance. Peace falls again.) Osso bucco ($28) shows up occasionally and has more than its fair share of followers. Though the shank still requires a steak knife, its braising liquid is reduced to an appreciatively intense consistency, bold with wine and stock.
The most indulgent standard is a Francese-style lobster tail, which appears at a good many tables, tender but perhaps not fully worth its $36 price tag. Lobster’s a meat that does well with sweet but not sour; for the money, it’s better to stick with the dough dishes. Most entrees are served with gnocchi (truthfully, tough) or risotto, which gets more than its fair share of attention on Atwells but still earns acclaim here. Gone are the innovative interpretations; Longo does parmesan and mushroom and that’s all he needs to do. The Arborio maintains its integrity, but it’s the preternaturally creamy texture that exceeds expectations.
Not surprisingly, the wine list is moderate. One can only guess where they’d store a deep inventory. The bar seats a mere five though the bartender (“we call him the Doctor”) seems happy enough to play apothecary for those willing to try something new. Unless you’re dead set against reds — and one might simply avoid Italian if you are — the Ruffini Reserva Chianti serves nearly every dish well.
Though the meatballs would likely feed the Eastern seaboard, dessert still warrants attention. Several are brought in though the strongest — and not surprisingly, the most unpretentious — are made in house. Cannoli ($7) are bookended by chocolate chips and drizzled with strawberry and chocolate sauces. Equally as good are the individual loaves of banana bread ($7), split into slices and served accordion style with sliced banana and a marshmallow-style whipped cream. It’s so rudimentary that one can’t avoid the epiphanic realization that sweet and simple make an indelibly pleasing pair. Hold fast to that knowledge and to your winter coats though. The dining room is almost entirely exposed to the breeze at Atwells and Dean and, when the door swings open, Italy turns arctic. Longo doesn’t take reservations so use the call-ahead list or hunker down in the car until your name is called. The space is pretty tight no matter where you sit and coats often end up serving as seat cushions. But even on the coldest nights, elbow room seems superfluous when you’re with family.