Passing beneath Federal Hill’s iconic pine cone-bearing arch, a friend and I joined the Providence Tour Company group gathering in Garibaldi Park, ready to take a deep dive into the historic Italian neighborhood’s food-filled past. Our guide, Patti Sammartino, explained that the gateway’s pine cone, La Pigna, symbolizes abundance and prosperity.
It’s a fitting emblem, as acquiring abundance and prosperity – by almost any means necessary – was a theme of the Crime and Cuisine Tour. Sammartino regaled us with everything from Italian-American folklore to Buddy Cianci’s reign as mayor of Providence from 1975 to 1984 and again from 1991 to 2002 (despite being a convicted felon), and stories about the state’s banking crisis in the ‘90s, all while we ate our way through a handful of Atwells Avenue’s many restaurants and eateries – each with a tasty tale of its own.
Our tour started in the 1950s with the Sicilian Mafia, also known as La Cosa Nostra, which means “our thing” in Italian. Led by mob gangster Raymond Patriarca, Sr., “The Office” was headquartered at 168 Atwells Avenue. Patriarca operated the Coin-O-Matic front, loaning cigarette vending machines to establishments, who would pay dues, or “kick up,” to La Cosa Nostra in exchange for protection – “mostly from them,” Sammartino added.
Strolling Federal Hill in 2023, we could almost picture Patriarca sitting in front of the Coin-O-Matic (now a smoke shop), offering a friendly wave to the passersby, or at least to those who were in good standing with The Office.
Trattoria Zooma was our first restaurant stop, where general manager Dino DiFante welcomed us into the elegant dining room. Tiny espresso cup in hand, DiFante told us stories of growing up in Italy, the strong presence of the Mafia in southern Italy, and Federal Hill’s transition from mostly Italian-American culture to the present-day multi-ethnic community, all while we enjoyed fresh house-made penne served with a velvety red sauce and flavorful veal meatballs.
Next up was the grocer and coffee shop where “Every Day is Sunday” – Venda Ravioli. At this staple dating back three decades, cheesemonger Caitlin “Cait” Armitage explained that several pantry items are imported from Italy and sold wholesale to many establishments nationally. She showed us the many varieties of fresh pasta Venda carries, found in all cuts and flavors, such as squid ink, truffle, lemon, spinach, and more.
It felt good to walk a couple of blocks to our next location, Gasbarro’s Wines. The liquor store has stood for over 125 years, meaning it operated through Prohibition, three pandemics, and two world wars. If these walls could talk, the hidden cellar behind a barricade of wooden liquor boxes, especially, would have tales to tell. Gasbarro’s Wines has liquor imported from all over the world, including many parts of Italy, even housing some of the most globally sought-after wines. Now, I tend to be a Moscato gal, but the Ripasso served to us was perfect, dry yet robust.
The Crime and Cuisine Tour teased our appetite for Federal Hill’s riveting history, which is inexplicably bound in food and wine. For an immersive tour of Providence’s culinary hotspot, meet at La Pigna with an empty stomach.
Book a Crime and Cuisine tour online, recurring Saturdays throughout the summer.
No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here