Sicilian street food lures diners to top of tall escalator

Sicilian street food lures diners to top of tall escalator

Providence is a tough city to plant a hospitality flag in.

Italian restaurants long ago conquered their turf on Rhode Island’s legendary Federal Hill.

And funky, creative eateries hold positions throughout the city, where many chefs earned their culinary stripes at the nearby Johnson & Wales University.

Dino Passaretta Joe Delle Cave and Frank Recupero
Red Carpet Opening— (L to R) Dino Passaretta, Joe Delle Cave and Frank Recupero

Yet, into the fray stepped restauranteurs determined to return the city to “grand hotel dining” enveloped in the glamorous Centro Restaurant and Lounge.

Located up what is arguably the longest escalator in the tiny state, on the second level of the famous Omni Hotel, restauranteurs Frank Recupero, Joe Delle Cave and Dino Passaretta faced challenges from all fronts when they threw open the doors in 2011 to a fine-dining experience all its own.

“Providence is a tough city,” says Frank Recupero. “I’ve lived in Miami and NYC, where there are two behemoth restaurant scenes. And I spend a lot of time in Boston, which also has a major hospitality enterprise. We had a lot of obvious challengers, from Federal Hill, which is a hop, skip and a jump from our restaurant at the Omni Hotel, to the fact that diners have to pass a Fleming Steak House on the ground level, to ride up the longest elevator in the state, just to get to our door.”

In this week’s Q&A with Recipe for Success @ Boxerbrand, Recupero explains how the three owners brought the “wow factor” to quaint Providence.

Q: How did you get Rhode Islanders up the escalator to try Centro Restaurant?

We had a grand opening like no other. I patterned it from restaurant openings and other events I’d seen or been to in New York City. We had a giant red carpet, search lights, flashy cars parked outside, and Jaguars and Range Rovers parked inside the Omni’s lobby. We flew in a 7-piece band from New York, and they played for hours. It was the type of spectacle you could see from the streets, and would make anyone ask, “What’s going on?”

We officially opened in January 2011, right after the New Year. And we’ve been going strong since that grand opening.

Q: How does ‘street’ fare fit in with the glamor and pizazz?

I love the whole street-food trend, and the way it’s popping up in every menu. When Anthony Bourdain started traveling through remote villages in Cambodia and around the world, coming back with a new food trend, I immediately thought of the street foods my Nonna used to make in my mother’s childhood home in Italy.

Though a lot has changed now, the house my mother grew up in in Sicily originally had dirt floors. And in the kitchen, there wasn’t a stove. Though they had running water, they lived with chickens and other animals, and they were poor. And every year there were festivals where people would walk around eating Arancini, which is an Italian rice ball filled with tomato sauce, peas and meats.

At Centro, we’ve taken the inspiration of the old food and updated it. So, our Arancini is filled with wild arugula and pancetta and fontina. People love them! Our chef offers them to guests like an amuse-bouche, a little bite of something delicious, which is literally Sicilian street food.

Q: How do you balance hotel grandeur with the street in one restaurant?

Being in a hotel, you have to do what’s expected. So, for example, the Caesar salad is ubiquitous. So, with all the must-haves on the menu, we tried to elevate it with creativity, and a little something unexpected. Our Caesar, for example, is built with an un-chopped baby romaine. That’s one small example. We are always evolving with our menu, and I keep on top of the food trends. I work a lot with FrankDePasquale of the Boston’s North End. He has had amazing success in Boston, New York and Miami. And he’s been a great help and inspiration for Centro’s menu, and two other sister restaurants we have in Providence. We’re now in three hotels now. In addition to the Italian restaurant, we have a new American restaurant called the Public Kitchen and Bar, which opened four years ago, and The Vig, an upscale sports bar, we opened a year ago. No three restaurants are alike, but they’re all doing well despite all the competition this little city.

Q: Besides competition and tall escalators, what other challenges have you overcome?

From a practical standpoint, one of the biggest is parking. Rhode Islanders don’t pay for parking. So, we offer free parking, but it isn’t free. We pay for it, and it comes off our revenue side.

Rhode Island is a small state with a lot of quaintness. Selling the grand hotel dining concept was a risk, but once we got our feet under us, we invited the food editor of the Providence Journal over. And she gave us a quote which really validated what we do. She wrote, “Centro is a restaurant in the Omni. It is not a hotel restaurant.” That was our first pat on the back, and we’ve been going strong ever since. Our Nonnas, who used to make street food so long ago, would be proud. — Centro uses Boxerbrand menu cover products in its table presentation. Thank you!

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