LOVELY LIBATIONS The bar at Siena.
I can't imagine that anyone returning from a visit to Tuscany fails to wax rhapsodic about the cuisine, perhaps as soon as the customs inspection. And it's hard to think that the people naming their two restaurants Siena, the town that is the culinary center of the region, would not stand up straighter before doing so, considering the ambition and responsibility.
Chef Anthony Tarro and his co-proprietor and brother Chris are no longer breaking out in beads of sweat; mobs of loyal customers have made their restaurants quite popular. Both have worked for many years in the food industry. Anthony graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design Culinary Arts Program, then Johnson & Wales, rounded off by studying Tuscan cuisine in Bologna.
In 2005 they opened Siena on Federal Hill, undaunted by the competition of countless other Italian restaurants. That must have worked promptly, because two years later came the fancier Siena, which subheads itself a " Cucina-Enoteca," in East Greenwich.
We revisited the latter recently, and the déjà vu was gratifying. There are warm woods, dark orange and other earth colors, including raw sienna and burnt sienna, a visual play on words. The attractive bar area was noisy but inviting, with its fascinating chandelier of suspended glass balls. We were ushered into a quieter room, with acoustic ceiling tiles, that was even more beautifully decorated. We sat with a row of regal decorative plates behind us, each bearing a large crest.
The menu is as attractive and varied. On a prior visit we had started with and much enjoyed their self-selected mix-and-match combinations: salumeria ($5-$6), from flavorful prosciutto to spicy salsiccia secca piccante; cheeses ($5-$8), from Gorgonzola to truffled cacciotta al tartufo; and olives ($3), from mild, black Gaeta to meaty, green Cerignola.
It's hard to pick starters here. Even the beet salad, a common offering everywhere, is inventively tossed with dried apricots and goat cheese, perked up with lemon juice. There is always pizza al ferri ($12-$14), wood-grilled to a turn. The Arezzo pizza, named for a city south of Florence, has roasted dates and fig purée as well as prosciutto, caramelized onions, and cheeses. Next time. We settled on the calamari all'aceto balsamico ($10) for its variation on the Rhode Island State Appetizer. Drizzled with a good quality balsamic vinegar, there were diced tomatoes and fresh basil as well as hot cherry pepper rings for a tangy beginning.
We next had a Caesar salad ($7) because it promised to contain several anchovies, the only legitimate way to salt that salad as far as we're concerned. Continuing in traditional fashion, we decided to share a pasta dish before our separate entrées. There are several possibilities, all of them tantalizing, from jumbo tortellini filled with butternut squash and amaretto-flavored crumbs, to baked ricotta and potato gnocchi ($17), which we had much enjoyed here before.
But plain and simple won out. What can they do with the omnipresent penne alla vodka ($15) that would earn our appreciation? Besides let us add chicken ($2) or shrimp ($4), that is. Prepare it precisely and correctly was the answer. The spicy hotness was enough to satisfy my tweaked-up taste buds and still be OK with Johnnie, who doesn't like things too spicy. Besides being flavorfully sauced, the pasta was definitively al dente, with just the right bite.