New York Times food writer Fran Bruni’s recent piece “Oh, My: Now That Was Italian”
took me right back to our last trip to Providence, Rhode Island. We wanted to eat at the legendary Joe Marzilli’s Old Canteen
. This place was “old school” before that became a movie or a cool thing to call your hipster, pseudo-rat pack friends. Joe Marzilli is not posing -- he IS old school.
Providence is said to have the largest Italian population outside of Italy. You hear as much Italian as English spoken up and down Atwells Avenue. I love languages, translations. I love learning peoples’ names, the names of dishes that originated elsewhere. There’s such a richness that comes from being a country of immigrants. I want to eat it all up…literally! The name of the dish I had, Saltimbocca, literally means “to jump in the mouth.” How fun is that?
We get a table, arrive just on time. I whisper to a waiter, “Is Mr. Marzilli here tonight?”
He pointed to the man behind the register: “86 years old, God bless him.”
I’m guessing that Joe Marzilli’s has more in common with the restaurants Bruni reviewed than with Del Posto or Babbo. No crudo here, either. From the coat check “girl” who was the only woman in the bar, to the older men watching “Dancing with the Stars”, to the black vested waiters, this is clearly not a yuppie destination.
Then there’s Joe himself - on the phone, taking reservations, handling requests for favors, taking compliments. Nothing disappointed. I may have embarrassed the guys in the bar who didn’t notice me standing there waiting for my coat. I heard them joking about the cameraman spending too much time on the guys’ moves, instead of the girl in the bugle-beaded bikini. I couldn’t resist: “Hey, what is this, the Spice Channel?”
They all laughed, they’re good sports at the Old Canteen.
We knew our food would be simple, hearty, Italian-American fare. Exactly what we were in the mood for. Saltimbocca was one of their specials that night. Recommended with that knowing nod that lets you know you’re in the care of a seasoned waiter. Not some kid who answers your questions about the veal with a sneer and something like “Well, I don’t eat meat, but I hear it’s a good dish.”
This dish did not disappoint. Usually, one would get scaloppini, pounded thin and pan-seared with a thin slice of prosciutto and too much cheese. Not so at the Old Canteen. Two hearty veal loin filets, (almost like eating two filet mignons) topped with a generous slice of prosciutto and just the right amount of cheese gently melting over the sides of the rare veal. The pan sauce was finished with Marsala; a nutty sweet note to balance the salt and cheese in the dish.
My husband’s ravioli and meatballs were happily, un-fussy. No fancy garnishes or precious pasta. Hearty meat and cheese ravioli, obviously house-made or procured fresh nearby. Simple red sauce, just enough. No water pooling on the edge of the plate – a sure sign of an inferior kitchen. A couple of large, moist meatballs accompanied the pasta. The only possible disappointment was the Caesar salad. We favor a more pungent anchovy-laced version that this one didn’t quite measure up to. Its saving grace was the cool crisp romaine.
Perhaps my favorite part of the meal occurred at the end. We were too full for dessert - did I mention the portions? As we were settling the bill, I overheard the woman behind me (quite near, in case you’re a diner who hates close quarters) ask the waiter to wrap the rest of her Veal Piccata for her son. He was at the hospital awaiting the arrival of his twins, her first grandchildren.
She said, “I know it’s just my leftovers, but it’ll be better than hospital food.”
The waiter came back and said, “I added a little sautéed spinach and some bread, so he could have a nice meal. No extra charge.” Now that, my friend, is old school. A mother would be proud.