JOHNSTON, R.I. — Johnston has the country’s second-largest concentration of Italian-Americans, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. So it’s not surprising that the town would offer a number of Italian restaurants at all price levels.
Trattoria Romana Johnston, a recent addition to the roster, serves up deftly prepared classic Italian dishes.
The 100-seat restaurant that opened in the Centre at Cherry Hill shopping mall in mid-October is the latest venture under the direction of Luciano Canova, the Italian culinary impresario who established elegant Italian dining at Luciano’s in Wrentham, Massachusetts, in 1991.
Born in 1949 on a farm near Rome, Canova credits his parents and grandparents for his love of food, but he honed his culinary skills at the Culinary Institute of Italy. Prior to moving to the United States, he worked in Switzerland and Germany and served as chef on a cruise boat.
With carpet on the floor, tablecloths and acoustical tile sandwiched between rich wooden panels in the ceiling, the first thing that struck me about the Trattoria Romana Johnston space was its serenity. It’s a place where the music remains in the background and where adults can carry on a conversation.
Although there were animated groups all around us, the tables are set far enough apart that there is privacy. The pale gray walls are hung with framed photos of Italian scenery and food, and the rich, dark-wood accents make the space resemble a posh private club.
While only a few of the men dining that night were wearing ties and jackets, Trattoria Romana Johnston is clearly not a place for jeans on people of either gender. The room is formal, and while the servers were friendly they were entirely professional and glided around the floor seamlessly. This is a spot for a special dinner or date night. It’s not a grab-a-bite joint.
All of Canova’s restaurants offer extensive specialty drinks and exotic martinis to start the meal. My companion and I both opted for one of the seasonal drinks, a Midnight Manhattan; it is made with Woodford Reserve bourbon, Grand Marnier and white cranberry juice balancing the sour mix.
The menu at Trattoria Romana Johnston is lengthy, and the portions are large. There is a rather hefty $5 fee for splitting a plate, so few diners progressed through antipasti to pasta followed by a secondi. There are also supplemental fees for substituting gluten-free pasta and gluten-free breadcrumbs.
While there are a few soups and salads, the most interesting starters are the seafood options. I began with snails, which were termed by their French name of escargot rather than the Italian word for them, lumache. They were swimming in a fragrant and flavorful sauce of wine, garlic, rosemary and tarragon and served with some toasts to enjoy the sauce.
My companion opted for a cold seafood salad containing shrimp, octopus and calamari in a flavorful lemony dressing, although the octopus was not as tender as it should have been.
Other starters are mussels simmered in a white wine marinara sauce, fried calamari, and meatballs served on polenta that pays tribute to Canova’s mother. While Canova is the overseer and creative director of the kitchen, the cooking is done by Marcos Derota, who has worked with Canova for a few years.
All of the pastas are made in the kitchen, as are the gnocchi. In addition to spaghetti, fettuccine and rigatoni they also feature pinci (also spelled pici), a thick hand-rolled form famous in the Siena region of Tuscany. In addition to being tossed with a variety of sauces, some sheets of pasta are stuffed to form ravioli, filled with either braised short rib of beef or a forcemeat of herbed chicken and ricotta cheese.
There is an extensive choice of entrées, with at least five options for chicken, veal, seafood and meat. My companion chose branzino, and the two large fillets of sea bass were napped in a lemon and caper sauce served atop sautéed spinach and accompanied by mashed potatoes. The fish was nicely cooked and the sauce enlivened it nicely.
I’m a sucker for veal parmigiana when it comes from a good restaurant’s kitchen, especially because I wanted to try the San Marzano tomato sauce used extensively on the menu. The server allowed me to substitute gnocchi for the capellini with which it is usually served. The large cutlet was both tender and flavorful; all of the dishes we tried that evening were seasoned nicely. However, the tomato sauce had a rather pasty texture rather than the silky one I had anticipated.
In the pecking order of Italian restaurants, an osteria is the most casual; it’s almost like a snack bar serving wine and simple food. Up the ladder a peg is a trattoria, most of which have no printed menus, and wine is served from carafes rather than bottles.
The level of fine dining offered at Canova’s restaurant — and for the prices charged — is definitely that of a ristorante, the highest rank of an eatery in Italy. It is an excellent addition to Rhode Island’s roster of Italian restaurants.
Trattoria Romana Johnston, 1571 Atwood Avenue, Johnston, R.I., (401) 519-9100, trattoria-johnston.com. Smart casual (no jeans). Parking lot. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. AE, MC and V. Open Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday from 4:30 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 4:30 to 10 p.m.; closed Mondays. Appetizers, soups and salads $5.95 to $14.95; pastas $17.95 to $21.95; entrées $18.95 to $31.95. Full bar.
Bill of Fare
A dinner for two at Trattoria Romana Johnston might look like this:
2 Midnight Manhattans: $22
Insalata Frutti di Mare: $16.95
Escargot Montalcino: $15.95
Vitello alla Parmigiana: $23.95
Branzino Limone: $26.95
Glass of Pinot Grigio: $9.25
Glass of Chianti: $8.50
Total bill: $158.44
Chef Canova’s other restaurants
While Italian dining in Rhode Island is most closely associated with Federal Hill in Providence, chef Luciano Canova and his partners have expanded the options in other parts of the state.
In addition to Canova, Scott Sisson, Pauline St. Pierre and Angel Amaya share ownership in Trattoria Romana, which opened at 3 Wake Robin Rd. in Lincoln in 2007 and is now joined at that address by less formal siblings Pizzeria Romanaand Trattoria Express. A similar menu is offered at Trattoria Romana South, at 71 South County Commons Way in South Kingstown.
Luciano’s, at 800 Washington St. (Route 1) in Wrentham, was the chef’s first restaurant, and he has a different group of partners for that venture.