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Waking up Italian

Better Than Ezra blared next to my head.

I groaned.

It couldn’t possibly be time to wake up, could it?

I manage to stay gainfully employed at a full-time job that requires me to be up relatively early in the morning. It’s somewhat of a miracle, though, given my penchant for sleeping late. My boss was surprised to find that I am, in no way, a morning person. I hide it as best I can, but if you call me early on a Saturday or Sunday, prepare for some verbal assault. Two days. That’s all I get for my longtime love of sleeping. So, to me, those two days are crucial, and waking up early on the weekend is the last thing I want to do, pretty much ever.

On Saturday, that feeling was multiplied. I had stayed out too late the night before, but my body quickly forgot that I had a 7 a.m. wake-up call and went into weekend mode. When the alarm jarred me out of sleep, I was genuinely shocked until I remembered that Heather and I were supposed to take a tour of Federal Hill. The tour was a present from my Aunt Donna, and while I was enthused about the overall concept, I was a little puzzled as to what Italian cuisine we would be snacking on at 9 in the morning.

Heather and I arrived at Café Dolce Vita a few minutes early, and graciously devoured a cup of coffee. She was out with me the night before, so we were on the same “I’m too tired for this” page. Our tour guide, Cindy Salvato, a chef and expert in Rhode Island’s culinary history, passed out wine biscuits. Not a good start. I don’t like wine biscuits. Not wanting to be rude, I took one and broke off a piece. It was the only piece that made it to my stomach, for as soon as Cindy looked away, the rest ended up in my purse (a charming surprise I forgot about until the next morning).

Cindy then asked where we had parked, and warned that the three-hour tour (tell me you sang that in the theme of “Gilligan’s Island,” like I did) surpassed the two-hour street parking limit. Heather looked nervous. I scoffed. I like to live on the wild side, and I am notorious for parking illegally. She rose to move the car and I waved her down. “You’ll be fine,” I assured her, in response to the skeptical look on her face.

The first official stop on the tour was Antonelli’s Poultry, where they slaughter their own chickens. That’s all Heather needed to hear. A longtime vegetarian, she was not interested in seeing chicken heads, feet or any disembodied birds of any kind. Myself a carnivore, the idea didn’t gross me out so much, so I went inside. Antonelli’s has been in business since the early part of the 20th century, and is the last shop of its kind in the state. The owner brought out live birds one by one and … no, he didn’t kill them in front of us. That would have horrified even me. I don’t want to see the bird killed; I just want to eat it. He brought out quail and partridge and rooster and chicken and an unusual looking white bird that looked none too happy in his hands.

Reuniting with Heather outside, we walked to Tony’s Colonial. No sooner had we walked in, I recognized the face of Representative John Lombardi, a former mayor of Providence. Lombardi, and his brother Frank who is now a senator in Cranston, grew up on the Hill, and it seemed too perfect that he would be shopping for gravy, or whatever it is you Italian people call tomato sauce. It was almost like he was a prop in the tour. Cindy regaled us with stories of the elusive San Marzano tomatoes and the growing habits of Italian food makers. A chef herself, she had a lot of helpful tips for cooking, including that you should taste the foam of your pasta water to determine if you’ve salted it enough. My Irish mother has no idea.

At Tony’s, we snacked on bread, sharp provolone cheese and delicious prosciutto, and I even learned how to pronounce the latter. We also sampled balsamic vinegar, and Cindy shocked us all by revealing that true balsamic costs upwards of $75 a bottle. Not exactly in the realm of Good Seasons dressing.

Venda Ravioli was the next stop, and we were treated to an antipasto salad. It wasn’t even 10 a.m. at that point, but my taste buds didn’t seem to mind. We had more bread and some Parmesan cheese, and I learned how to make better soup stock. Across the street, we got an up-close look at how Venda makes their famous ravioli. This was my second favorite stop on the tour, and it was so mesmerizing to watch. These three little women, on their feet all day, stand there and make package after package of fresh ravioli, faster than you can make a phone call. For a long time, only two women knew the recipes, and those recipes were stored safely in their memories. It was not until recently that the recipes were written down, and shared with the next generation of Venda chefs.

At Via Roma, we sampled olive oil and Cindy advised us to essentially cut out all other oils. Based on how many Italian centenarians I’ve met through this job, I’m going to take her advice. I did not, however, take her advice on how to prepare chocolate pasta. Some things should never be messed with, and I find that to be true of both chocolate and pasta.

Then came my absolute favorite stop on the tour. Scialo Brothers (pronounced “Shallow,” I discovered in a brief lesson on speaking Italian) is actually run by the Scialo sisters. They took over for their father and offer all of the pastries, breads, cakes and more that made the bakery famous. Established in 1916, the bakery is a treasure, not just for Federal Hill, but for Rhode Island as well. One of the sisters led us on a tour of the facility, but I sort of tuned her out once a giant tray of pound cake was presented before me. We got to see their massive brick ovens in operation, watch a cake decorating tutorial and snacked on probably the best treats of the entire tour. What really stood out by this point, though, was how well Cindy knows her stuff. She offers the kind of behind-the-scenes commentary that you would never get shopping and eating your own way through Federal Hill. And at Scialo Brothers, she knew the name of every baker, cake decorator and cook, and they seemed genuinely thrilled to see her. That’s not a reputation you can fake.

The tour wrapped up at Gasbarro’s Wines, whose redecorated store is absolutely beautiful. Owner Mark Gasbarro enlightened us with his wine expertise before we toasted our tour guide, washed down a small glass of red and went on our way, back to the car, which, I’m happy to report, did not have a ticket on it.

I would highly recommend the Savoring Federal Hill tour experience. I’m a native Rhode Islander and I knew very little about the history Cindy shared. The company was good, the food was great and I left with some very useful cooking tips that I will soon be trying out in my own kitchen.

It might even be worth waking up early for.


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