Review: Two New Italian Restaurants in RI
Benvenuto Restaurant and Vanda Cucina transport you back to mama's kitchen.
Dino Passaretta’s latest restaurant vision was to create a feminine space, a homage to his mother, Vanda, and her Italian heritage. And though he’d readily admit the Warwick neighborhood Vanda sits in — wedged between a gas station and a roundabout — is chaotic, the restaurant is distinctly intimate. Passaretta has made a name for himself with large hotel dining rooms (Centro, Public, the Vig) but this is a wholly different endeavor. Vanda is a garden party, with rustic wood chairs, an Italian tiled bar and philodendrons spilling over a ceiling-high shelf. Diner-style milky glass pendant lamps illuminate the space filled with women whispering over wine and fruit-spiked lemonade. That’s not to say Vanda doesn’t have a masculine side; it’s just that the reigning force is Mother Nature. This is modern Italian, a gastronomic approach that goes all in on vegetables. Vanda’s version of arancini ($12) is deconstructed and far lighter than traditional incarnations. Ground beef and rice are wrapped in steamed cabbage and served with tomato puree over a lake of fontina sauce, creating a dish that’s both playful and grounded in heritage. This dynamic is also evident in a buffalo mozzarella salad paired with bundles of prosciutto and grilled fruit; it’s the Italian countryside served at a communal table in the sunshine which just happens to be situated across from a Cumberland Farms.
The staff falls, individually, between the eras that Vanda represents. Some will proclaim that the Bolognese with hand-made fettuccini ($19) is the best thing on the menu while others will express surprise that it’s the restaurant’s most popular dish. Turns out it’s both: a gentle version of a hearty ragu with delicately twirled noodles. It placates people with what they know and allows them to explore other options that show more innovation: salmon with corn risotto ($24), cod with olive-rich orzo ($23) or a side of charred root vegetables with lemon-anchovy sauce ($8).
Dessert, of course, is essential to any meal that purports to have you dining in a diminutive Eden. There’s a precious Gaines-style tiramisu served in mason jars and sprinkled with cinnamon, but the signature sweet is also the most subdued and sentimental. A wedge of olive oil cake is topped with berry compote and lemon curd and every server will tell it comes right from the kitchen of the restaurant’s namesake. In essence, this is an Italian pound cake that captures its country in all of its simplicity and depth. There’s nothing constructed or affected about the dish; it’s a nuanced cultural declaration and it lands with all the consequence of a romantic whisper. That’s the charm of this roadside restaurant infused with a mother’s love. As Frank Sinatra croons in the background, diners are lulled into familiar celebration. Vanda has no real interest in being an in-your-face Italian experience; it’s more focused on getting you to feel it in your bones.
1 Centerville Rd., Warwick,
Open Tues.–Sun. for dinner. Wheelchair accessible. Lot parking.
Vibe: The outdoors come in to taste mama’s cooking.