The recent mini-heat-wave that made us all optimistic that summer really would roll around again set us to thinking about seasonal restaurants along Rhode Island's shore. One of our favorites is back, in full stride in its 14th year: Maria's Seaside Café in Misquamicut. Amidst the clam shacks and ice cream stands of Rhody's own mini-Coney Island, Maria's is an oasis of understated, tasteful décor and fabulous Italian dishes that keep customers coming back for more.Though there are two large outdoor seating areas, the chilly ocean breezes sent us inside for maximum comfort, where you can choose between a bar/lounge area, a medium-sized dining room, and a small one tucked in between. All are low-key and informal, with warm cream-yellow walls, red flower-print curtains swagged on the upper half of the windows, natural wood tables and chairs, large cloth napkins, and bottles of olive oil placed strategically next to the salt and pepper.
On the menu, the "M" next to certain items indicates their continuing popularity as well as the chef's pride in them. Such items include the lobster bruschetta and the sun-dried tomato/basil pesto dip for appetizers; among the pastas, the rigatoni vodka (with or without grilled chicken, shrimp, or scallops) and the frutti di mare with shrimp, clams, mussels, calamari, and scallops in a roasted tomato sauce; and among the entrées, the cioppino (tomato fish stew over orzo) and pan-seared Stonington sea scallops.
The latter described a drizzle of black truffle essence over Italian couscous with lobster meat and asparagus ($26.95) and that lured Bill right in. Five large scallops with large-pearl couscous that had bits of sweet red pepper and sun-dried tomatoes, along with the promised lobster and asparagus, kept him very happy.
In a less flashy way, so did my ravioli fatti in casa ($15.95) — house-made ravioli with a roasted eggplant and ricotta filling that was delicious and satisfying. The five expansive ravioli were covered in a mild but very flavorful tomato sauce, and they had the remarkable feature of not having rubbery, underdone edges while the middle pasta was cooked through. A great culinary feat!
But, wait, I've jumped ahead. Before our main events, we shared an order of calamari fritti ($9.95) and a Maria's salad ($8.95). The calamari was one of the best I've had, simply because the coating was like a crumb-batter — all crunch, no grease — and the squid rings were very tender. The accompanying basil leaves and hot pepper rings received the same batter and quick-fry treatment.
The salad is a Maria's special which tosses finely chopped Romaine and iceberg lettuce, Belgian endive, radicchio, cukes, tomatoes, and Granny Smith apples with chunks of feta cheese and a balsamic vinaigrette. It's always a treat to eat a chopped salad without messy cutting and fishing around. Other salad possibilities at Maria's are field greens, Caesar with homemade dressing, Caprese with local tomatoes in season, and arugula with pears.
The house-made desserts are crème brulée, tiramisu, and bread pudding (with golden raisins, hazelnuts and hazelnut gelato). Gelato flavors are from Bindi, flown in from Italy. The crème brulée ($6.95) was creamy with plenty of vanilla flavor and a large strawberry for a garnish.
The wine list is extensive, as is the list of cocktails. In addition to a Bellini (peach puree with prosecco), there's a red lady (pomegranate liqueur with prosecco). A current Tuesday night special (through June 27) are half-price Sicilian wines, and a Thursday night offer is fresh tortillas with devil-and-angel with any beverage purchase, especially good with Maria's red-wine Sangria. And, lastly, there's a half-price bar menu every night from 5 to 6 pm and 9 to 10 pm.
So, for a family outing or just a cocktail and seafood from the raw bar, Maria's is the place to be in Misquamicut. You can walk off the pasta and dessert at the nearby state beach, whose parking lot has usually thinned considerably by supper time.
Johnette Rodriguez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.