If you ask twenty-five people about their favorite Italian Restaurant in Rhode Island, chances are you will receive just as many answers in return. That simply means that there is a boat-load of gastronomically pleasing choices in RI that can transport you to that boot on the Mediterranean. The challenge for the RhodeCrew, as always, is to highlight off-the-beaten-path places that serve great food in the Ocean State. We hope that our experiences will encourage friends and families to trek to these special privately owned establishments. Our hunger for a great Italian meal leads us to an “Old School” tavern in North Providence.
Several years ago, Ralph’s Bull & Claw Tavern caught my attention while on a journey to the old Pinelli’s North End Café on Charles Street in North Providence. It was hard to miss the colorful sign and green awning in front. My parents had mentioned that one of our family friends Joe used to frequent the place and had said that the food was excellent.
Joe was an Italian-American man who owned a barbershop in Walpole, Ma. He had a larger than life personality and loved the Yankees, the game of golf, and busting my “Red Sox-loving” chops. I deeply respected his opinion when it came to Italian food. His place was the number-one hot spot on my Christmas day house hopping tour! He always had a great spread of food that included sausage and peppers, antipasto, meatballs and one of the best homemade Bloody Marys around? Always the life of the party and a generous host, we lost Joe two days before Christmas last year. I have been thinking about him a lot lately, so when the opportunity presented itself to refer a restaurant to my fellow ‘Crew members, I chose Ralph’s. Thankfully, my suggestion was both welcomed and accepted.
We arrived at Ralph’s Bull & Claw Tavern just as it was opening on a Sunday at 12:30 PM. If this place were a sports jersey, it would have definitely been a throwback – perhaps the old high socks and short-shorts of the Larry Bird era Celtics. The décor of dark paneling, wall to wall carpeting and a Ms. Pac-Man machine in the bar area is something right out of “That 70’s Show.” However, Wi-Fi, flavored vodkas and fancy lighting is not a requirement in order to offer up delicious cuisine.
As we typically do, we collaborated on the menu and came up with an attack plan. We decided on several entrées for which to share. Sharing allows us to form opinions on all table dishes and make some decisions on the overall menu. Any good Italian would agree that beginning a meal without fresh bread is like a day without sunshine!
The waitress brought us a steaming hot and crusty bread boulé which helped start the meal off in the right direction. She also recommended the Stuffies (Stuffed Quahogs for you non-New Englanders!) as an appetizer. We graciously accepted her advice and were off on our culinary escapade. The Stuffies ($3 each) were outstanding. They had a crispy, Panko-like exterior and a moist interior filled with large chopped clams, onion, celery and a spicy breading. These would stand up to any stuffed clam in RI.
For our first entrée, we selected the Bracciole & Gnocchi Pizzaiola $16 (pronounced bra’zhul). The Braciole at Ralph’s consists of thin slices of beef rolled with a filling of spinach, mozzarella and Romano cheeses, and house-made ricotta gnocchi – in a rich tomato ragout. This dish was exceptional on every level. The ricotta gnocchi was firmer than a traditional potato Gnocchi, yet tender and flavorful. The Bracciole was slow cooked to perfection and worked well with the hearty, intense ragout. The melted mozzarella spread out throughout the sauce and the generous portion size was an added bonus
Our second choice was a veal dish that may go down as one of the best veal dishes I have tasted, Veal Stella Di Mare $22. A breaded veal cutlet stuffed with Mozzarella and Prosciutto would generally be tasty enough, but at Ralph’s Bull & Claw Tavern, they go the extra mile and top it with shrimp and a lobster cream sauce. As rich as it sounds, the veal was light in texture and not overly fried. The sauce was smooth like Lobster Bisque, but mild enough to allow the flavor of the prosciutto and veal to shine through. I would recommend this dish to anyone with a love for veal.
Finally, we all agreed that we wanted to savor a traditional Italian specialty so we decided on the classic Meatball Grinder with Provolone topped with the house-made marinara. Like the previous two dishes, the meatballs did not disappoint. They were moist and flavorful with a hint of crushed red pepper. The bright red marinara was freshly prepared with a sweet and savory flavor that worked well with the spice profile of the meatballs. The roll was freshly baked and held all components together nicely.
Ralph’s Bull & Claw Tavern will see us again! We are grateful for the opportunity to try these less celebrated places and discover how good food can be in Rhode Island’s diverse communities and neighborhoods. Boston’s North End is noted as the Mecca for Italian Cuisine in New England, but I’ll take RI and the Greater Providence area for my Italian fix any day of the week. CIAO!!
1027 Charles Street, North Providence, RI 02904 • Tel: (401) 722-2624 • Fax: (401) 728-0231