Letter from Providence, Rhode Island

Regional ReviewQuarter 3, 1999
by Julia Kehoe

My family is unusually close and extraordinarily interested in eating; and somehow, these phenomena are related. In fact, an old boyfriend once pointed out that you could tell the importance my family placed on “the” food by the way we always used the definite article to announce it.

My favorite childhood memory is arriving at my grandparents’ house for Sunday dinner. My grandmother is in her apron at the door with a wooden spoon, her hair pulled into a bun, yelling at my sister, cousins, and me to stop hollering. My grandfather is standing calmly at the stove in his dark blue corduroy pants and maroon cardigan sweater, stirring the gravy and meatballs. Without turning, he opens the oven to his right, takes out five meatballs, just fried, and hands them to us, behind his back. Crispy on the outside, moist but cooked all the way through on the inside until the hot juice runs clear; the mixture of ground beef, breadcrumbs, garlic, cheese, egg, and a little parsley, is transformed into a delicacy of mythic proportions: “grandpa’s meatballs.”

He’d prepare even more of his native specialties for the holidays, including Thanksgiving, which we never thought of as “turkey day.” It was more like a fancy Sunday dinner plus the bird and a bunch of mashed vegetables that most of us ignored. Who could get excited about turnips when the first course was escarole soup with baby meatballs, immediately followed by my grandmother’s lasagna? My father (of Irish descent) maintained that it was the Italian standbys that were unnecessary. But deep down, I think he was pleased the menu didn’t mimic the other families’ in the neighborhood.

The family has since dispersed, the house has been sold, and regular Sunday dinners are rare. But in those experiences, I got my appreciation for life, for family and friends, and my zest for eating. When I first walked into Tony’s Colonial Food Store, I was immediately whisked back to my grandparents’ house. Rows of imported Italian delicacies — marinated mushrooms, grilled artichoke hearts, pickled eggplant, homemade biscuits flecked with anise, chestnuts suspended in honey — were so lovingly displayed that the place could as easily have been a food lover’s Louvre as a working store. I wanted to touch every olive marinating in the bins behind the cheese counter. And when I saw steaming trays of stuffed peppers, escarole soup, and undeniably Italian macaroni next to a mountain of hockey puck-sized meatballs, I knew this was not a marketing ploy. It was as if my grandparents had whipped up a few of their best dishes and put them out for show.

Gina and Tony DiCicco bought the store after coming to America from Casino, Italy, more than 30 years ago — about the time my grandfather was proclaiming me the world’s first baby with garlic breath. It’s situated in Federal Hill, an urban oasis in the recently revitalized city of Providence. An enclave for Italian immigrants, the neighborhood has maintained its old-world feel. Bleached-out red flags greet the visitor with pictures of wine bottles and picnic food. Storefronts boast staples of the Italian diet — provolone, biscotti, prosciutto.

But the faded charm of these few square blocks is a holdout in many ways; both the neighborhood and the shop have had to change along with the times. While still reminiscent of the small shops in Italy where cooks pick up marinated olives and roasted peppers en route to the butcher, Tony’s brick façade, “home-cooked” meals-to-go, and enormous parking lot speak to the needs of the ’90s shopper. As a result, the store maintains a loyal following of those who’ve patronized the business since it was a one-room shop as well as the newer converts — transplanted academics and gourmets who have moved nearby and like to order fresh pasta via fax. Gina says the shoppers are like family members who come as much to visit as to eat. Perhaps this is what is so special about Tony’s. It brings people together over food.


Julia Kehoe enjoys reading, writing, and traveling as much as eating, although all her hobbies have something to do with food.

 

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