Dining Review: Sarto in Providence
The rustic Italian hot spot makes a comeback in a big way with a more approachable menu.
Everyone knows that the restaurant world has gone through innumerable personal crises in the past few years — most firmly rooted in financial and staffing challenges. But a side effect of simply staying afloat in treacherous waters was to reexamine what was integral to a restaurant’s identity and what was, in some way, unnecessary.
When Sarto reopened this year after a COVID hiatus, that evolution was manifest. The space, which has always been striking, remains much the same: The dining room and kitchen sit at the periphery of an impressive bar. The ceiling soars overhead while a trio of pendant lamps the size of cathedral bells illuminate the stools and spotlight cocktails decorated with brass anchors. The dining area, marked by soft teal and natural wood, snakes around the room, decentralizing the energy but creating opportunities for privacy that a square space can’t provide.
To some, Sarto feels primarily like a bar; to others a dining room that feels like it belongs to a hotel, suited for varied purposes. Either way, it remains a depot for what has become a far more approachable incarnation of Italian food.
The Sarto of yesteryear had a strong sense of ego, a place where it was not unusual for servers — with a breadth of culinary and wine education — to persuade a diner with academic encouragement. The menu was complex — pork shank with amaro borlotti beans, chestnut gnocchi, sunchoke zeppoles — with the waitstaff serving as translators. Its latest version is a more accessible pathway to Italy, though it still maintains a level of technicality that complements the modern aesthetic. Intricacy inspires the menu, but it takes a more rustic form, detailing the Italian countryside rather than its cities.
There are still salumi and formaggio options which zero in on the kitchen’s desire to marry European influence with local ingredients. Bresaola and Grana Padano make their way from the Lombardy region, speck and La Tur from Alto Adige in Northern Italy, but finocchiona and Narragansett Creamery’s Atwells Gold hail from inside state lines. This is the central philosophy of the contemporary Sarto: Italian food is not a trip abroad; it’s the very essence of Rhode Island.
The menu allows you to build a meal entirely without entrees — revolving plates of seafood and bruschetta heaped with burrata can satiate a group with ease. Sarto has also bought into the restaurant world’s best decision in decades: charging for bread. The house deserves at least $6 a plate for the day’s effort, and the practice has allowed myriad restaurants to show off a talent that used to be farmed out to those with lesser
skills. In this case, it’s a rosemary-scented focaccia drizzled with olive oil, wrapped in paper, and cut in pairs which, frankly, no one should be sharing. If there’s a kid at the table, carbonara fries ($12) are the Italian answer to fast food, drizzled in fontina and topped with pancetta. They’ll also buy parents twenty minutes free of screen time and the epiphany that every family meal should feature french fries to keep the peace.
The simplest dishes — a pair of crudos ($14) — offer the least in representing the kitchen’s skills. Tuna is quickly seared and, while it holds up well to capers and oranges, each bite carries a slight char of cooking. Raw sliced scallops are paired with heady ingredients — chili, sunflower seeds, cilantro — but are too subtle to stand up to them. It’s anomalous in that entrees are saturated with piquancy and, the more detailed the preparation, the better the result.
Pastas layer base flavors and textures, eating almost like a stew. Green onion pesto pairs with tomato confit ($21), oxtail sausage ragu is cooled by quenelles of ricotta ($22) — all creating a tiered exploration of opposing forces. But it’s the meats that linger in the mind. Roast chicken ($28) arrives in Comme des Garcons fashion: half the bird with four petite carrots on a dark minimalist plate. Underneath the chicken, however, is a potato pancake that looks like a fruit roll-up and tastes like a Hanukkah party. The meat itself carries so much flavor that it’s nearly impossible to conjure anything other than grandma — yours or someone else’s, whoever uses butter like a panacea. It’s the most startling dish in that it is a shape-shifter, both in the contrast between its appearance and its punch, as well as its ability to eclipse cultural boundaries. (Does roast chicken have a culture, other than love?). If anything is capable of eclipsing its glory, it’s the porchetta ($26) which is, fundamentally, Italy’s answer to comfort food. Brilliantly crisped on the outside, it sits on a pool of polenta with a few melting onions and a dash of salsa verde. Bright and earthy, it’s too agrestic for the old Sarto and adored here.
With its less formal presentation, the restaurant’s diners have softened as well. There are large groups and quiet couples, older neighbors and parents with kids.
The staff is young and readily leaves the diner in charge, stopping by to chat and make recommendations but rarely asserting proclamations stronger than, “Oh, that’s my favorite.” If there’s a dominant personality afoot, it emanates from the bar which classifies its work as “big and tall” (serious booze) or “slim fit” (for the lightweights). Both approaches rely heavily on aromatics and herbs and, set down on display, it’s hard to pass up a bar stool and an evening that ends with an espresso old fashioned or a coffee spiked with amaretto.
In the end, dessert is the Dean Martin portion of the meal: all old school and then some. Limoncello cake ($9) with candied zest and curd is retro in the right ways, as is the brown butter cake with whipped ricotta and candied pistachios, all of which tastes like an ode to marzipan. Or there’s a variety of housemade gelato, sitting in wait for a shot of espresso or simply a spoon. Regardless of choice, an evening at Sarto is an easy one — quick to make its mark on a city that never tires of another interpretation of Italy, particularly when the reverence runs the gamut from grazing to Sunday dinner.
Providence G, 86 Dorrance St., Providence, 270-2790, 270-0790, sartoprovidence.com.
Open from 3 p.m. Wednesday–Sunday. Wheelchair accessible. Complimentary valet parking.
Cuisine: Italian bar scene.
Vibe: Roman Holiday meets family dinner.
Prices: Appetizers: $6–$16; entrees: $21–$40; dessert: $9–$10.
Karen’s Picks: Focaccia, pasta, porchetta.