In the Kitchen: Guy Charles of Maria’s Cucina

Old-school Italian gets a contemporary twist at this Providence mainstay

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Months after taking on the role of executive chef at Maria’s Cucina on Broadway, Guy Charles still marvels over the beauty of his new workplace – the two-level restaurant in the 1880s-era  Italo-American Club, adorned with historic murals, stained glass, and other intricate architectural details.  

“I’m sitting here looking at the chandeliers and all the woodwork – it’s just amazing,” says Charles. “You couldn’t build this restaurant today.”

Charles, who started the job last November, remembers one of the first conversations he had with the restaurant’s co-owner Chris Spertini. “I said, man, if we could have anywhere near the level of craftsmanship with the food this building has, we will be onto something special.” With that in mind, Charles put together a menu he describes as “old-school Italian with plenty of contemporary touches.”  

For example, for a more refined twist on mozzarella sticks, Charles fries less-common scamorza cheese and tops it with Pecorino Romano and torn basil. Other popular dishes include gnocchi with short rib ragu, grilled octopus with fennel and arugula, and linguine vongole with shaved bottarga (cured fish roe). 

Charles, who was previously the chef at Locanda in Saunderstown, brings decades of experience to his current role. His affinity for Italian food goes back to when he was growing up in an Italian-American family in New Jersey. 

“You have to have a feel for cooking Italian food that takes time, and I think that’s just why I love it,” Charles says. “You’re taking peasant food and making it something special, and it also brings back childhood memories for me.” 

As a young adult, Charles was inspired by the work ethic of his father, who was the first in his family to attend college and later became a school superintendent, but he decided to follow a different path. “I was the black sheep in the family because I wanted to be a chef,” he says.  

Charles graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1990 before working at various restaurants around the country. He spent an especially influential three years working as sous chef at Jeremiah Tower’s now-closed San Francisco restaurant Stars, considered one of the birthplaces of California and New American cuisine. 

About eight years ago, Charles moved to Rhode Island after making regular trips here to visit extended family. “I always thought Rhode Island was a beautiful place to visit every year from San Francisco,” he says. “I thought it was the best kept secret. And so now I’m very happy here.” 

Charles has seen a lot of changes and challenges in the industry over his more than 30 years as a chef, but none of them, including the most recent stresses of the pandemic, have diminished his enthusiasm for cooking. 

“I’m at the stage of my career where a lot of chefs don’t work the line anymore,” Charles says. “But even after all these years, I still get a real kick out of having my hands in producing the food, and the camaraderie that comes along with working in the kitchen. It never gets old for me.” 

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