By Michael Janusonis
|A delicious taste of Tuscany, in Warwick
Journal Arts Writer
Eggplant involtini is one of many delicious appetizers at Sophia’s Tuscan Grille, in Warwick.
The Providence Journal / Sandor Bodo
WARWICK — I first visited Sophia’s Tuscan Grille thanks to friends who love the food at this charming spot not far from Hoxie Four Corners and who had given me a $30 gift certificate.
Not only did I agree with their choice of restaurants, but I discovered that there was a $29.95-dinner-for-two special that night — an appetizer, choice of soup or salad and two entrees from about four menu choices — and we wound up only having to pay a little extra because of a shared dessert, tax and tip. Apparently it was a popular idea, for the 60-seat place was busy and the Mediterranean Cod I’d wanted to order was already sold out by 7:30. Because of the size of the place, potential diners are encouraged to make advance reservations, especially on weekends.
The sold-out cod was a good reason to go back, especially after my alternate choice — the chicken caprese — proved to be such a winner. Two tender cutlets pan-seared and sautéed with cherry tomatoes and artichoke hearts were then finished with basil and buffalo mozzarella. I’ve had similar dishes at other restaurants, but Sophia’s was one of the best and such a generous portion that I wound up taking a good-sized piece of it home.
My dining companion’s Maryland crab cardinal that night offered large pieces of crabmeat sautéed with garlic and tossed with a pink vodka sauce over angel hair pasta. Happily, the crab’s flavor was not lost in the sauce.
But even before that I had been impressed with a really wonderful appetizer, a Sicilian pizza, which was only available with the $29.95 special that night. I can’t recall what it was topped with — maybe something with pesto sauce — only that it was delicious and the best thing was its wonderful homemade dough.
Owner Steve Simas, in a later phone call, said Sicilian-style pizzas are only served occasionally as appetizer specials with the $29.95 menus on Wednesdays and Thursdays. The focus usually is on the four grilled pizzas that are on the regular menu — a Margherita, a four-cheese, a pesto and a rustica — ranging from $9 to $11.
Sophia’s is a pleasant place, painted a sunny yellow with yellow-shaded hanging light fixtures and little battery-operated yellow candles on the tables. Of the several paintings on the wall, most are of bright yellow sunflowers, enhancing the overall glow. Simas, who opened Sophia’s nearly two years ago, said the decor was inspired by the golden yellows and sunflowers of Tuscany, where chef Christopher Palios spent the summer of 2006 learning the techniques of Tuscan cooking. That’s why, Simas said, the emphasis at Sophia’s is on fresh ingredients. “We don’t even have a microwave,” he said.
Simas comes from a long restaurant tradition. His mother is Evelyn, of Evelyn’s Villa fame in West Warwick, where he was the owner and general manager for 22 years.
There are several booths spaced around the restaurant as well as large tables, each seating four in chairs that seemed rather low. Although there’s a small bar near the kitchen, it’s only used for buffet service during catered parties. Alcohol isn’t served, but diners are encouraged to bring their own wine. There’s a $2 per person corkage fee. Simas said this has actually been a boon to business as many customers prefer bringing their own wine rather than paying the sometimes high restaurant prices. A variety of soft drinks is available, but we just had the tap water.
Before our appetizers arrived, we were brought several slices of just-out-of-the-oven focaccia to go with the small bottle of olive oil for dipping that was already on the table. Now let’s just pause right here because the focaccia is worth a visit to Sophia’s alone. Like the pizza dough, the focaccia is house-made.
With a crispy crust dotted with oregano and a moist interior, the focaccia is a bread whose praises should be sung. If we hadn’t dined at Sophia’s before and known how good the rest of the food promised to be, I would have considered stopping right there with the foccacia.
But our appetizers were on their way soon enough and they were worth waiting for and savoring. In addition to such local standbys as clams casino ($7), fried calamari ($8) and mozzarella marinara ($6), Sophia’s has items not found on every Italian restaurant menu, such as the homemade spinach and potato gnocchi, which Simas said is a house specialty.
It was a tossup for a while between the arancini ($8), those quick-fried Romano-crusted rice balls that are served with a spicy San Marzano tomato sauce, or the eggplant involtini ($8), which eventually won out. Thin, battered eggplant slices are rolled around prosciutto and a wonderfully creamy herb-battered ricotta, then topped with Parmigiano Reggiano and a rich San Marzano sauce. The three fork-tender rolls offered a wonderful blend of flavors and arrived in the small yellow ceramic skillet they’d been cooked in, placed attractively on a folded-up napkin on a large plate.
The baked stuffed mushrooms ($7) were four plump caps that had been stuffed to more than double their height with a scallop and crab stuffing. Moist and not too bread-y, the stuffing had a delicate, buttery taste and yet retained a good flavor of the seafood, pieces of which could be seen in the tasty mix.
At last I got my Mediterranean cod ($17), a large serving of the moist fish that arrived over a big mound of hearty red mashed potatoes. (Instead of the potatoes I could have had a vegetable medley or a choice of three pastas.) The fish itself was topped with a generous serving of diced tomatoes, Kalamata olives, thin-sliced scallions and herb salsa, with crumbled feta cheese and seasoned bread crumbs. This was a delicious way of gussying up this rather bland white fish, whose flavor was still not lost in all those ingredients.
My companion’s veal saltimbocca ($19; subtract $3 if you have it made with chicken) was another winner. Pounded-thin veal, so tender you could cut it with a fork, pan-seared with sage and prosciutto, was finished in a mushroom Marsala wine sauce and topped with thin slices of provolone. The sauce, with its sweet-woodsy flavor, enhanced the meat. A choice of penne pasta on the side with a ripe-tasting tomato sauce was a perfect accompaniment.
On a previous visit we couldn’t resist the warm bread pudding, which our server said was “heaven,” even though she admitted she normally doesn’t like bread pudding. And heaven it was. She also said it was the only homemade dessert of the several that she had rattled off to us.
But on this visit, our efficient server, Greg, handed us a Dolci menu, which also included wild strawberry spumoni, a chocolate polenta tart and a cappuccino crème brulee, all of which are now made in Sophia’s kitchen. Simas said he once thought it would be “too tedious” to prepare desserts, but then discovered that not only was it not too much of a burden, but that the customers loved the offerings.
My companion’s crème brulee ($7) had a very firm crunchy crust, unlike the thin crispness one usually finds on this dessert. But we enjoyed it nevertheless, with its very light coffee flavor.
The chocolate polenta tart ($7) was a broad slice of dense, sweet chocolate served with warm vanilla caramel and drizzled chocolate sauce. The polenta part of it is in the crust, although it didn’t have any flavor of polenta’s cornmeal base. It was a chocoholic dream and a perfect finishing touch to a memorable meal. BILL OF FARE
Dinner for two at Sophia’s Tuscan Grille might look something like this:
Chocolate polenta tart…$7.00
Total food and drink…$51.00
Sophia’s Tuscan Grille, 1729 Warwick Ave., Warwick. (401) 732-6656;. www.sophiastuscangrille.com. Casual. Wheelchair accessible. Children’s seats. Reservations. AE, MC, V, DIS. Parking lot. Dinner 5 to 9 p.m. Wed. and Thurs.; to 10 p.m. Fri. and Sat. Breakfast 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Sun. Appetizers $6 to $9. Entrees $14 to $24, with a $29.95 dinner for two Wed. and Thurs. Bring-your-own-wine — $2 per person corkage fee.
Link to original article form Projo.com