Sampling Rhode Island’s Food Tours
Board the Brew Bus or Walk Up an Appetite for Some of Rhody’s Best Flavors
If golf is a good walk spoiled, then a food tour is an enlightening walk well fed—with taste treats from food shops and eateries all along the way. In Rhode Island, food-loving adventurers are especially fortunate because they can explore diverse locales filled with outstanding restaurants and irresistible food, wine, beer, cafés and, yes, history, all within relatively short distances. Some guides offer different tour options: In most cases the relatively easy walks are in compact neighborhoods—and no one goes home hungry or, in the case of one tour, thirsty.
Newport Food Tours offers customized progressive dinners without the cleanup. Operators Marie and Mehdi Mechtaly arrange tours for groups of friends to visit four or five restaurants in a Newport neighborhood on the day and time requested, designed to meet the group’s budget and dietary restrictions.
“I’m not really a tour guide, I’m a food ambassador,” she says. Each stop features a small plate of a restaurant’s specialty. “It’s a way we can introduce them to farm-to-table and showcase the talents of [Newport’s] chefs.” Passionate eaters get lots of information about what they’re tasting and sipping.
On a recent Saturday night Marie escorted seven young couples to four eateries along Broadway. Stationed at the Newport Naval War College, they were out for a fun evening of food and gab.
“Eating out is a priority for us,” said Laura Nicholson, who is from North Carolina. Marie explained that this group wanted casual seasonal food and they wanted to socialize, so she played the unobtrusive hostess— pouring wines, explaining each dish, making sure the food came out at a comfortable pace.
The first stop was Norey’s on Broadway. There the group selected from a list of 150 craft beers and nibbled on a chicken wing appetizer. Their next stop was at Caleb & Broad for the Point Judith mussels and homemade flatbread topped with duck. Then on to Boru Noodle Bar, with a final stop at Tavern on Broadway for the entrée and a chocolate mousse dessert.
Tours also offered in French, Arabic and Danish. NPTFoodTours.com; 401.662.1795
Rhode Island Brew Bus owner Bill Nangle was brewing beer in his kitchen around the same time he developed an interest in craft breweries. Two years ago he decided to share his appreciation for locally made beers by organizing weekend bus tours to Rhode Island’s artisanal breweries. But his Brew Bus is not an alcohol-fueled bar crawl.
“I wanted it to be an educational experience,” he says. “You can have a good time with friends and learn as much as you want about these beers.” There is no drinking on the bus and the participants thus far have ranged from 30 to 70.
Four tours are available, departing from Providence, Newport, South County or Westerly. Each stops at three or four places for carefully measured tastings—and participants can munch popcorn on the bus in between stops. The South County tour includes a visit to Sons of Liberty in Peace Dale for tastes of their award-winning singlemalt whiskeys, plus a distillery tour. The group moves on to Proclamation Ale Company and ends back in Peace Dale at Whalers, where everyone knows your name.
“You get to meet the brewers themselves,” said Jim Meniates, visiting from New Hampshire. “You can’t do that [at big-name breweries].” The three-and-a-half-hour South County tour ends just in time to head off for dinner.
Rhode Island Red Food Tours has been introducing diners to restaurants in Newport’s historic Point neighborhood for about a year. As a real estate agent and history buff, Paula Silva became a cheerleader for the city by the bay.
“People like eating where they know the locals go,” she said. So she takes her visitors to little-known, out-of-the-way places. Do you know where Bella’s Cafe is? It’s a featured stop on this six-restaurant tour. The eateries range from hip and casual to elegant dining. Tours begin picnic style at the Newport Lobster Shack and end with wonton-wrapped cheesecake in caramel sauce at the White Horse Tavern.
Along the way Paula serves up information about the chefs and their specialties, a history of the buildings and the neighborhood. It’s a three-hour tasting of our regional foods and history. Everyone leaves with a map of Newport and lists of places to shop and eat.
Nicole Mineau lived in Newport for 10 years and still discovered new places on the tour. “It’s a relaxing, casual afternoon. It felt more special than just going out to dinner."
Savoring Rhode Island: A former pastry arts instructor at Johnson & Wales, Cindy Salvato has been leading tours of Federal Hill for 15 years. Her three-hour walk, talk and taste trips are sprinkled with anecdotes about the shop owners and the neighborhood. She shares cooking secrets, like how to tell if there’s enough salt in the pasta cooking water. Participants leave with a tote bag stuffed with discount coupons, recipes, shopping lists, a cheese knife and all the food they can’t resist buying along the way.
One recent Saturday, 13 people met at Café Dolce Vita to fuel up with coffee and a pizzelle waffle cookie. Then the group— which included six family members visiting from Springfield, MA, to celebrate a birthday— headed across DePasquale Square to 150-year-old Antonelli’s Poultry. Cindy introduced the group to owner Chris Morris, who talked about the life cycle of a chicken and touched on the history of this Federal Hill institution.
From there it was off to Venda Ravioli for a plate of small bites. Freshly fortified, the group moved a block west to Tony’s Colonial market. Under a ceiling of colorful hanging colanders Cindy introduced the staff and pointed out a $195 bottle of balsamic vinegar, as well as more affordable brands. As the group tasted, she and owner Tony DiCicco talked about real olive oil versus the inferior stuff sold in clear glass bottles without expiration dates. At each stop Cindy introduced the owners of the street’s most iconic shops; Lois and Carol of Scialo Bros. Bakery, Ernesto at Roma Market, Mark at Gasbarro Wine.
“I grew up in this neighborhood,” said Liz Chapdelaine of Coventry. “It’s very nostalgic for me. We’re losing a lot of the small stores where our families shopped."
At the end of their tour, cooking instructors Phil Griffen and Malinda Coletta headed back to Antonelli’s Poultry to bring home a rabbit for dinner.
Offering Federal Hill tours, plus field trips for Portuguese food, prosciutto tastings and more. SavoringRhodeIsland.com; 401.934.2149
Walter Potenza’s Tours of Federal Hill: Chef Walter has been a fixture on the Rhode Island food scene since the 1980s. His newest project is something a little different: walking tours of Federal Hill that focus on its quirky history. But “of course we have to talk about food,” he says, because, “Italians believe that the most important piece of furniture is the [dining] table.” His talk is salted with advice on how to eat well. The chef and cooking instructor combines his acerbic comments with affection for our state’s “Little Italy” and it all makes for a fun and educational walk.
One Sunday morning three couples from Barrington and Portsmouth walked to the Arch (that’s La Pigna, a pine cone, not a pineapple) and trotted along Atwells Avenue, stopping every few minutes as Walter told stories about the colorful and notorious characters associated with almost every building. In the space of an hour and a half, he talked about Italian culture, American politics, cooking tips and his philosophy about food. The group learned about the Macaroni Riots of 1914, about New England mob boss Raymond Patriarca and about the house on the 100 block that was built overnight because the city wouldn’t issue a building permit to the owners.
With stops at Venda Ravioli and Tony’s Colonial market, the walk ends back at the Federal Hill Heritage Center that Walter created on the second floor of his cooking school. Two rooms are filled with black and white photos of life on Federal Hill, chronicling a neighborhood in which 50,000 people of Italian descent lived between 1898 and 1932.
“I didn’t know any of this,” said Paula Ghirardi of Portsmouth, who took the tour with her husband before heading out to lunch on the Hill armed with Walter’s recommendations.