Maybe there’s a city ordinance about it, maybe it’s not wanting to let the home team down, or maybe it’s that ethnic tradition of making us a menu we can’t refuse. Regardless, I’m beginning to suspect that a bad Italian restaurant isn’t allowed to open in Cranston. That culinary stretch in Knightsville gives eyebrow-raising competition to Providence’s Federal Hill. And there, tucked into Cranston Street, is Mario’s.
The stakes were particularly high when the doors opened four years ago, since the closing of Haven Hill in this location had left the neighborhood pouting. But since Mario Santilli has three decades in the business, he — joined in the kitchen by son Mario Jr., and by wife Carol behind the bar — knew what to do. Keep things simple.
We heard about the place from foodie friends Mary Ellen and Harold, who’d raved about an especially enjoyable recent lunch. Ah, the bruschetta with white beans and grilled chicken; oh, the veal and peas over “perfect” angel hair pasta. So we went and checked it out with them. While our experience as a quartet had a couple of misses, it had many more hits.
The dining area is narrow, with tables bracketing a path barely wide enough for two. That’s because the restaurant is poised like the point of an arrowhead on the tip of a skinny triangular block aimed at Haven Avenue. The walls and plastic tablecloths are the color of a bottle of red wine, which you can order inexpensively, and the photographs of scenic Italian sights fill out a pleasant atmosphere. The bar, refreshing for not dominating the restaurant, is out of sight in the back, up a few stairs.
We started off with the proper attitude of overindulgence: finding too many of the appetizers tempting, we ordered three. How can you pass up something called a portabella Big Mac ($8.50)? No bun, just a stack of thick slices of grilled eggplant, summer squash, and red onion, the guest of honor on top, with a balsamic vinaigrette serving as the special sauce. Less inventive but even more tasty were the stuffed artichoke hearts ($8.95). The table agreed that the bread filling was delicious, fortified with Italian ham, roasted peppers, and olives. Wisely, the Gorgonzola sauce was blended mildly enough as to not overpower the medley of flavors.
I was responsible for not restricting ourselves to two appetizers, as two civilized couples would do. But a special was fried smelts, a comfort food from my days as a penny-pinching college student, before the little fish and equally plentiful mussels got pricey. (The Pilgrims wouldn’t eat lobsters, using them instead for fertilizer, probably until some French restaurateur started calling them homards. Sigh. New Englanders.) Anyway, Mario’s preparation was grand. Like the calamari on the regular menu, it was in a pool of that balsamic vinaigrette, but drizzled with more of the same, rather than tossed, to keep the succulent, boneless little treats crispy. The accompanying roasted red peppers and sliced calamata olives were plentiful. Ummm.