In the ups and downs of the restaurant business, one of the best stories is when someone can still be a success after many years. In Rhode Island, Bill Pinelli has built a successful empire that has had those ups and downs, but so many years later he’s still running some great restaurants and finding the energy and business savvy to open new ones. To Rhode Islanders, Pinelli is even a name brand by now. His latest restaurant on North Broadway in East Providence isn’t just named Simply Italian, it’s named B. Pinelli’s Simply Italian, and it’s a very good name for a very good restaurant.
That name, Simply Italian, is a perfect description of the place. The décor is just that, simple and what we’ve come to expect in an Italian restaurant: a muted brown palette and many pictures of Italy on the walls. The menu, however, is anything but simple. There are more choices than you could shake a calamari tentacle at, and the list of specials on the night we were there was lengthy as well. There’s also a full bar which has its own separate Bar Bites menu. There’s a good wine selection, too, though the by-the-glass choices aren’t going to score any originality points.
A nice touch for children is a more extensive children’s menu than just the usual suspects. In addition to pasta they offer an alfredo option, macaroni and cheese, lasagna and ravioli. In a great nod to Italian-American roots, anywhere on the menu where a tomato sauce is mentioned, it’s called “gravy” – and it’s a very good gravy, too.
So let’s dig into the food, because there’s a lot of it. Some of the items are classics transported from other Pinelli restaurants. We didn’t order the Garlic Bread Stack, though we have happily indulged in its pink gorgonzola sauce overload in the past. We decided to start with Crunchy Meatballs ($7) and I insisted on the Mozzarella Triangles ($7) because I realized that since I stopped ordering frozen fried junk at chain restaurants, I couldn’t remember the last time I had fried mozzarella. I was happy with the choice – clearly this was made in-house. It was crispy and oozing with salty cheese. The Crunchy Meatballs were also an excellent start. Both dishes were a lot of food and could probably be split four ways.
While the adults were indulging in all that fried goodness, the girls’ pasta dishes arrived. Both my wife and I noted to our server Celeste, who was so wonderful and helpful, that it was the first time in ages we haven’t had to drain a ton of melted butter out of a children’s pasta dish. High marks to the kitchen at Pinelli’s for understanding a bowl of plain pasta does not require a stick of butter.
Having been to Pinelli restaurants before, we were unsurprised when our entrées were two of the largest plates of food on the planet. I ordered the Pork Milanese ($16), which is tender pork cutlets, breaded, pan seared and served over broccoli rabe and cannellini bean ragout, finished with fresh baby arugula and a lemon olive oil drizzle. My wife ordered the Manzo Bolo ($18): traditional chicken parmesan served over potato gnocchi and tossed in a traditional Bolognese sauce.
The Pork Milanese was excellent. The cutlets were pounded very thin and beautifully fried, not a hint of oil left behind. The beans were perfectly cooked, creamy and flavorful with a tiny bit of bite to them so you weren’t eating mush. The greens added some great contrast and there was a nice spiciness to the dish overall.
The Manzo Bolo was enormous. Like the pork cutlets, the chicken parmesan portion of the dish was well executed. The gnocchi with Bolognese sauce was also very well done. My one thought as I tasted the dish was that it really was two different dishes on one plate. But if you were hungry and indecisive enough to want to order both Chicken Parmesan and Gnocchi Bolognese on the same night, the Manzo Bolo is the perfect dish for you.
Anyone who’s frequented a Pinelli restaurant knows to expect that you’ll be taking food home. It used to bother me to be served that big of a pasta dish, but now I’ve come to happily accept that whatever my wife ordered will be my lunch the next day and vice versa. In the case of this evening’s dinner, the Manzo Bolo was actually lunch for two of us the next day, which is pretty impressive when you realize the cost of the dish. There are clearly many reasons Mr. Pinelli has sustained his Rhode Island empire; none so more than the fact that he gives the people great food, and he gives them a lot of it.