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[] Best bawdy pizza

Even if we've been given permission by the lubricious, Bacchanalian eating scene in Tom Jones, most of our libidos have been too well-tamed, stifled, or civilized to connect food with sex. Yet every once in a while, you take a bite so sensual that the link is unavoidable. Modesto's is a restaurant offering many a gustatory treat, but their pizza puttanesca is remarkable. It's chock-full of enough stuff to give a portion control consultant heart palpitations: tomatoes for departure point, kalamata olives for pop-out flavor, and capers for tang, all brought together by the unifying saltiness of anchovies. Go ahead and drool. By the way, putta means whore in Italian. Puttanesca sauce was so named because its savory aroma was so seductively unsavory. What a full-service recommendation -- a pizza for both hearty appetites and dirty minds. 49 Beach Street, Westerly, (401) 596-8686.

Best misleadingly simple description

Sometimes a dish sounds too simple to bother trying it. What would you expect from the Liberian dish palm butter and rice but a pale yellow side dish? A complex and robust meal, that's what, at least if you get Tunu Moore's version at Tunu's Place. The palm "butter" is not some kind or margarine, but rather the rich, red extract of the oil palm tree's grape-size nuts. To that flavorful base she adds exotic spices, beef, some reconstituted dried turkey and -- best of the lot -- chicken infused to the bone with all that flavor. The fruit and oil of the oil palm (Elaesis guineensis) is used in many West African recipes, the oil taking the rank of olive oil across the Mediterranean or butter in haute cuisine. If you want to try your hand at home, look for canned cream of palm fruit or sauce graine in markets. 651 Admiral Street, Providence, (401) 861-1767.

Best way to stuff your face

And then there's the Rhode Island-area tradition of stuffies. There doesn't seem to be a singular version of the word, apparently because no place is likely to be serving just one. No place, that is, except East Avenue Café, where the filling is as humongous as can still fit in a quahog shell. (There's a Polynesian equivalent, served in a giant Pacific sea clam shell, but that feeds a whole village. Quahog is the Indian name for the largest of the East Coast ocean clams, whose neighborhood Pacific sea clams have the good sense to avoid.) This sports bar/restaurant's version contains the usual bread crumbs and minced bell pepper stretching out the chopped quahogs, but the bacon-bedecked feast is as thick as a handmade burger. The place hasn't forgotten another Rhode Island blue-collar tradition -- large portions. 342 East Avenue, Pawtucket, (401) 725-9520.

Best potential culinary disaster

Some culinary ideas are just clever enough for their own good. Imagine all the tears and jeers before the first baked Alaska was successfully produced -- meringue-insulated ice cream, indeed. Who knows what failures preceded the first delicious fried cheesecake at Atwood Grill? (Boiled cheesecake? Cheesecake au gratin? Ah-hah -- cheesecake flambé!) Just as fried ice cream, so popular in recent years at Chinese restaurants, cheats by being first rolled in a crumb coating that takes the heat, so too does this delicious dessert finesse its description. "Cheesecake-filled chimichanga" is more like it. The cheesecake -- which is mostly cream cheese, after all -- is enfolded by a tortilla before a quick frying. The result is a hot, chewy exterior that contrasts nicely with the molten reward within, which isn't gooey or soupy, as plain cheese would be. Gluttony as well as virtue can be rewarded. 1910 Post Road, Warwick, (401) 223-0300.

Best fib on a menu

Among after-meal treats, cheesecake, along with any death-by-chocolate permutation, sells itself by its very appearance on a menu. The beauty part, they discovered at Hanson's Landing, is that the word itself is appealing and can attract attention to the other end of the menu without requiring actual cheesecake content. It gets better. Obviously, bait and switch is a risky tactic, especially with customers who have sharp implements at hand. So the switch is to an even yummier culinary component. The restaurant's popular "lobster cheesecake" may be a quiche in crustacean clothing, but as an appetizer it's superb. The wedge contains lots of lobster chunks, three cheeses -- hearty gouda, tangy parmesan and, yes, cheesecakey cream cheese -- all packed into a tasty crust. As with lobster in a heavy Newburg sauce, the delicate seafood taste can be drowned out by all that cholesterol competition. But you can always save the active ingredient for last. 210 Salt Pond Road, Wakefield, (401) 782-0210.

Best surf and carb plate

Speaking of lobster, when all else fails, why not try bribery? If more restaurants -- especially those in Rhode Island -- gave this marketing ploy a shot, we'd all be winners. The most inspiring recent application of that inarguable dictum is the lobster fries at Up River Café. Maybe tossing perfectly fine French fries with money could work nearly as well, but then we wouldn't be treated to chunks of lobster. Not to mention the sanitation problem. Even more important than how good it tastes, Up River's specialty is admirable for the imaginative tradition it could inspire: "Welcome to Flossie's Diner. And may I recommend the Meatloaf Avec Black Truffles. Or perhaps you'd prefer the Baked Beans with Presque Island Oysters?" On second thought, we could quickly get into dilemma territory: "Finish your peas, junior -- and don't just pick out the M&Ms." 37 Main Street, Westerly, (401) 348-9700.

Best vegetal couture

Enough making fun of French fries. (As opposed to making fun of the French, which most Americans can't get enough of, unless they make a living giving arrogance lessons.) Andean Incas are said by some authorities to be the inventors, and considering that Inca worship included sacrifices to potato gods, that's probably accurate credit. Belgians, half of whom are almost French, are elsewhere said to have come up with them first, although their "frietkots" are thick slabs and are -- we wouldn't joke about such a calumny -- topped with mayonnaise. (No wonder so many Belgians speak phlegmish.) But history is then and appetites are now. Kartabar makes it easy to forget that French fries have three times the calories, weight for weight, of baked potatoes, not to mention 12 times the fat. It's the light coat of flour and flavor that does the trick and makes for additional crunch. 284 Thayer Street, Providence, (401) 331-8111.

Best retro clam shack

A few years into the Rhode Island experience, we've taken to heart the local aversion of driving beyond the customary eight-mile radius to do much of anything. How, then, to acquire the kind of seafood treats associated with an ocean view without straying too far from the provincial capital? The answer lies just a short hop into East Providence, at Horton's Seafood. In 1988, David Horton added an eat-in section to the seafood market established by his parents in 1945, and the place offers excellent feasts in a convivial setting with pleasantly kitschy touches (such as the toy cars and ubiquitous slogan, "Frankly, scallop, I don't give a clam"). Horton's appetizers include the requisite favorites -- chowders, shrimp cocktail, clam cakes -- the frying of ultra-fresh seafood is clean and greaseless (try the generous scallop and shrimp combo, $10.99), and the combination of a casual atmosphere and delicious regional cooking makes for the restorative equivalent of a day at the beach. 809 Broadway, East Providence, (401) 434-3116.

Best comeuppance for a haughty relative

Why in the world did Belgian endive get all the ink? Did the vegetable hire a fancy press agent? Did Princess Diana or Grace Kelly or an earlier charismatic diner express high regard for the aristocratic leaf and start a fad? What's it got that its working-class cousin escarole, also an endive, ain't got? It's not as though it's bitter, like their cousin chicory. Anyway. The milder-flavored leaf may not hang out with radicchio, or swim in raspberry vinaigrette like its fancy-schmancy cousin, but it does even better in the chicken escarole soup at Italian Village. There's plenty of it, enough for a verdant component to every spoonful, along with the meat and rich chicken stock broth. There are other good kitchen-made soups here, some with more chicken, but none will better let you close your eyes, sip, and imagine an Italian grandmother whispering "Mangia, mangia." 195 Main Street, Wakefield, (401) 783-3777.

Best ice cream topping

When the first maraschino cherry was plunked atop the first sundae, that was not the last time surfeit would be added to taste-treat excess. Assuaging guilt, Ben & Jerry's provided Birkenstock-innocent cover for jam-packing goodies into ice cream, adding all but teeny candy kitchen sinks to their products. Torrone is a traditional Italian nougat candy, and as Roberto's restaurant has discovered, it makes a great topping, crumbled over vanilla ice cream. The simple dessert is five bucks, but worth every lira. The melt-in-your-mouth nougat, made from whipped egg whites and honey and studded with toasted almonds, offers a delectable textural contrast. The treat traces to a Roman confection employed as an offering to the gods, but this recipe has been traced to an 1441 invention in Cremona, where it was created for the wedding of Francesco Sforza to Maria Bianca Visconti. Let's lift a spoon to them. 301 Hope Street, Bristol, (401) 254-9732.

Best undiscovered Asian restaurant

Despite its location around the corner from Apsara, one of the most popular pan-Asian restaurants in the Providence area, Thmoda seems to be dwelling in obscurity. Sure, you might occasionally run into luminaries like Rich Lupo or others questing for new finds in ethnic eats, but the Elmwood Avenue storefront has yet to be widely discovered. The excellent food is an appealing amalgam of Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Cambodian influences, ranging from delicate shrimp dumplings to Mongolian beef, eggplant with garlic sauce, and various permutations of pad Thai. Prices are super-cheap, and the BYOB policy further enhances the eatery's affordability. The soundtrack of curiously addictive Asian pop is just another of the attractions awaiting new customers. 376 Elmwood Avenue, Providence, (401) 941-0254.

Best place to channel-surf while handling your business

Affable owner Ray Brooks of Picasso's Pizza (located in the quiet, construction-laden suburbs of Warwick) exemplifies the term "customer satisfaction." While the North Providence locale offers a club vibe (sounds about right -- NP has the ladies and Warwick claims the beer drinkers) a Sunday in Warwick revolves around beer, pizza, and pro football (read: male bonding). And what's worse than hearing a raucous reaction and missing out on the visual because of a faulty bladder? Don't want to miss another Brady sack courtesy of an inept Pats offensive line unable to read the cornerback blitz ? (Sorry, we're not all Pats fans around here.)Anyway, this guy installed televisions in the restrooms. That's right -- TVs in the restrooms. Where else can you scan through the NFL Season Ticket while handling your business? But the biggest improvement is the new "Picasso VIP couch areas" located in the back of the restaurant. Comfy couches, a big-screen TV surrounded by three more sets, Internet access, and PlayStation keep the usual bevy of fantasy football freaks occupied throughout the day. And when the grog runs low, just flip a switch and the illuminated "Need More Beer" sign attracts the attentive waitresses. Now that's VIP treatment. 2323 Warwick Avenue, Warwick, (401) 739-5030.

Best noodling without a piano

Don't be confused by the apostrophe before the S on the sign outside. According to their Yellow Pages listing, HONS stands for House Of Noodle Soup. The Vietnamese restaurant centers its menu around varieties of pho, the mix-and-match soup that contains rice vermicelli, but various kinds of noodles dominate just about every other dish. You've got your wide yellow, your narrow yellow, and your white wheat the diameter of a pencil lead. Rice noodles, whether transparent or opaque, have little flavor by themselves, so the best job they can get is to bulk-up soups. The other kinds are substantial enough to hold their own in more robust company. But don't write noodles off as culinary afterthoughts. Italians are so proud of their pastas that they show them off in shapes as weird as cartwheel and corkscrews. Let's not forget about where Marco Polo learned about al dente. 790 Reservoir Avenue, Cranston, (401) 946-2188.

Best antidote to overpriced restaurant food

Don't get us wrong. We don't mind occasionally shelling out some bucks for something really special. But we wish we had, well, $24, for every time we've walked into a glossy restaurant and dropped $24 for an overpriced entree that could have been made at home for a fraction of the price. It's a downside of the rise of dining as entertainment that this sort of experience is all too prevalent. Not the case, though, at the Red Fez, which offers very appealing food with a bit of panache at unpretentious prices. Entrees on the changing menu, bolstered by Latin and Asian influences, run in the $7 to $14 range. A wonderfully spiced jerk chicken sandwich and fries, for example, goes for $8, or you can have gnocci and roasted butternut squash with swiss chard for $9. The Fez also acquits itself well at the higher end of the price spectrum, usually with a more ambitious dish, such as braised beef short ribs in balsamic pan sauce with Parmesan mashed potatoes and roasted vegetables ($14). These are the kind of dining-out eats to which we've grown happily accustomed. 49 Peck Street, Providence, (401) 272-1212.

Best reason for pasta to exist

One of the frustrations of restaurant dining is that the experience ends. That's especially annoying if the meal is Italian, from a tradition where a big meal lasts all Sunday afternoon and into the evening, with maybe a break for the ball game. At a restaurant, taking home a doggie bag is better than nothing, but if the meal was fully enjoyed, then nothing is close to what you're left with. Thank goodness for the takeout sauces at Bella. There's a seafood-based red sauce that sings of the sea, and a smoky Alfredo sauce with enough of a taste of cognac to inspire arias. There are two basic reasons to take a pint or few home: you don't have time to sit down to one of Bella's delicious pastas; they're putting chairs on tables and want you to leave. Either way, breathe easy. 1992 Victory Highway (Route 102), Burrillville, (401) 568-6996,

Best unexpectedly exotic trip on the Hill

Federal Hill brings to mind thoughts of fresh pasta, crisp white wine, fried calamari with a pleasant crunch, and other tasty staples of Italian cuisine. The improbable aspect of finding on the Hill what may well be the best Indian restaurant in Providence makes the experience all the more alluring. Bombay Club occupies an inconspicuous space on Dean Street, but once inside, the strains of Indian music and the aroma of a complex array of spices transport diners to another place. The main attraction, of course, is the reasonably priced and unusually well-prepared food. The bounty of choices range from savory samosas filled with minced lamb meat to main courses like murg malai, chunks of chicken breast marinated in aromatic cardamom, cooked in a tandoor oven, and accompanied by cucumbers and fresh lemon wedges. Call it an Eastern twist on La Dolce Vita. 145 Dean Street, Providence, (401) 273-6363.

Best place to wish for an Italian nonna

If ever you might long to be indelibly Italian, with a nonna of your own, it would be at Puerini's. For it was Marie Puerini, grandmother of the restaurant's founder and chef Daniel, who passed along her cooking knowledge and whose portrait greets you as you enter the restaurant. It's not just the homemade pasta that has made Puerini's a place worth waiting in line for. It's the reliable sauces, the imaginative mix of ingredients, the fearlessness with strong flavors such as garlic and Romano, and the inventiveness with desserts. Try one of the veal preparations with fresh fettucine or one of the verdure dishes, such as the vegetable lasagne. And don't stint on dessert -- you don't want to miss something like orange-almond chocolate mousse or flambeéd bananas in a brandy-rum sauce. 24 Memorial Boulevard West, Newport, (401) 847-5506.

Best excuse for imaginative variation

Restaurants are full of tricks. One is to take something everybody likes -- ice cream, say -- and prepare it in some bizarre way -- frying, maybe -- that doesn't ruin it. (A note to children: If you insist on frying ice cream when your parents are out of the house, be sure to first roll it in corn flakes.) A variation that works especially well is the fried ravioli at Eclectic Grille. Two large square pasta pillows are stuffed with minced chicken and snow peas, among other ingredients, and fried crisp. The chewy exterior contrasting with the soft filling is the first success, followed by a second Italian-Asian fusion: a sauce that combines balsamic vinegar with soy sauce and a hint of sesame oil. The result is a simple appetizer master work -- not only convenient for a couple to peaceably split without a tape measure, but also very much worth sharing. 245 Atwells Avenue, Providence, (401) 831-8010.

Best overutilization of a marine resource

They don't keep a pet quahog out back, on a leash leading into the little cove, but their dedication to the clam at Starboard Galley is total. As at any clam shack, you can get a fried tangle of them heaped on a plate, and the clam cakes -- those ubiquitous Rhode Island fritters -- are among the best around. But their clam chowders -- no less than three of them -- set this place apart. Trained by years of opening cans of Snow's, many people prefer the version that contains milk and cream. That's largely because many people haven't gotten used to the strong, briny taste of the kind made with clam juice -- which, admittedly, is not distinguishable from clam pee. The middle ground, between essence of clam and clam nog, is their lightly tomatoed red chowder. Don't expect the herby Manhattan style, which Swamp Yankees are promptly banished for liking. 190 Ocean Road, Narragansett, (401) 782-1366.

Best reason to break out a map and find Adamsville

There are plenty of local joints specializing solely in everyone's favorite meal, but the Barn deserves attention. The menu states "located in the heart of downtown Adamsville," as if there was such a thing -- it's wedged between Little Compton, Westport, and Tiverton, off Route 81. Ring any bells? Never mind, head over the Mount Hope Bridge and break out the map. The 200-year-old structure was originally designed as a horse stable, but not to worry -- the only aroma emanating from this barn is that of fresh, made-to-order breakfast concoctions you'll find nowhere else. Hearty ingredients and specialties usually relegated to late-day fare intertwine with old-time breakfast favorites. There's hospitable service by a fleet-footed staff, including longtime waitress Terri, who arrives balancing trays on her head. Daily specials include intriguing items such as pumpkin waffles with maple walnut butter, the sinful "bacon and cheese filled French toast," spinach crepes, and many Creole-influenced dishes. The "Six Gun on a Bun" ($5.95) layers homemade corned beef hash with salsa, egg, and melted cheese on grilled Portuguese bread; "Eggs on the Bayou" ($8.95) pairs crab cakes and Creole hollandaise with poached eggs. But the main attractions among the regulars are the lavish "Westport River" omelet ($10.95) with broccoli, Swiss, and lobster, and a simply amazing specialty of poached eggs served atop Cajun cornbread and crawfish etouffe ($8.95). The scenic and soothing drive there is worth peeling yourself out of bed before noontime on the weekend. 16 Main Road, Adamsville, (401) 635-2985.

Best meteorological (burp!) inspiration

Maybe the inspiration was Sakonnet's Eye of the Storm blush wine, reportedly concocted when a hurricane power outage forced the vineyard to throw some varieties together and create a fortuitous blend. In any case, Newport Storm Hurricane Amber Ale is the latest local libation that brings to mind battening down hatches and herding the kids and chickens into the storm cellar. A couple of years ago, Coastal Extreme Brewing Company was created by four Colby College buddies grads. One of them, Derek Luke, on a lark had bought a home-brew kit that got more use than Hawkeye's still on M*A*S*H. Another, Brent Ryan, studied how to make beer on a commercial scale and drew up a business plan. Since colorful Newport had a dearth of mini-breweries, they set up shop in next-door Middletown, to subsequent success. Units 3 & 4, Middletown Tradesman Center, 307 Oliphant Lane, Middletown, (401) 849-5232,

Best West Side story

Nick's on Broadway is simply amazing. From the service to the selections, this cozy diner/café is truly a culinary marvel. J&W grad (and Smithfield native) Derek Wagner restored the quaint Broadway locale (across from the family-friendly Columbus Theater) nine months ago to rave reviews, particularly locals in the revitalized West Side neighborhood, where scores of regulars line the sidewalks and patiently await the opportunity to indulge in Wagner's alluring creations. The Sunday brunch has too many choices to appreciate in just one visit, serving kicked-up breakfast favorites (try the goat cheese frittata for a measly $6.50) accompanied by fresh-baked corn bread, but it's the anything-but-standard lunch menu that has drawn the attention of foodies statewide. There may be nothing better than the pan-seared duck with roasted pear, toasted walnut, and local bleu cheese ($7.95), served as a sandwich, wrap, or salad. Equally decadent is the maple-glazed pork with honey barbecue, smoked gouda, and caramelized onions ($7.75); and some of the best scallops we've ever indulged in, wrapped in smoked bacon with apple, greens, and goat cheese ($7.95). There's a flair for ingenuity and inspiration within every biteful. The freshest ingredients and ridiculously low prices (every dish is under 10 bucks) makes Nick's on Broadway a winner. 259 Broadway, Providence, (401) 421-0286.

Best place to hear Ted Williams yell "Gimme some mittens for my beer!"

Minerva Pizza has been serving up pies and pitchers for more than 25 years, but neighborly owners Kabalan and Kaylin Habchi bought the quaint location (steps away from the heart of Wayland Square) a few months back and business is booming, thanks to expanding their hours till 1 a.m. seven nights a week. The menu is chock-full of grinders, falafel wraps, apps (including a tasty $11 artery-clogging "side order basket") and, of course, pizza. The two large cheese pizza deal is a steal for 12 bucks, and the convenient hours lure in the Brown students (10 percent off with ID) and local night owls who often wile the hours away lounging on the handful of black iron tables outside while sipping pitchers of Bud, Bass, or Sam, to name a few ($7.25 and up). But the best part of the deal are the cryogenically frosted mugs, quite possibly the coldest on Earth -- chilly enough to give Teddy Ballgame goosebumps. 20 South Angell Street, Providence, (401) 272-2279.

Best diversions over your basmati

If Not Just Snacks ever stops showing restaurant customers those hilarious Bombay Bollywood film extravaganzas on DVD and tape, they'll have to resort to Coliseum gladiator battles with Busby Berkeley high-kicking projected above. By now, patrons will not be satisfied with less. They are accustomed to sighing over their samosas at the romantic scenes, palpitating over their parathas as the shoot-'em-up or martial arts scenes get antic, and tapping toes over their alu tikki along with hundreds of dancers in production numbers. This does not require marathon movie watching, understand -- all of these genres are jammed into every film, along with a Mafia takeoff or two, if you're lucky. So brush up on your Hindi or at least your body language, since there's a lot of eye-rolling and swooning. There's no popcorn, but you'll pop down those honeyed gulab jumam just as eagerly. 835 Hope Street, Providence, (401) 831-1150.

Best quahog pizza

Sautéed shrimp has long been the sole shellfish of choice for pizza connoisseurs, but Cavalieri's Pizza bucks the trend with "The White Quahog," a different and delicious pizza topped with a generous helping of freshly-chopped quahog, along with bacon and onions, mozzarella, and a splash of olive oil ($5.75, $9.95, and $18.70 for an enormous 24-slice feast). The in-house bakery is famous for its Sicilian bread, while the buffalo chicken and calamari pizzas are perennial house specials, but it's the quahog pizza that draws a fair share of East Bay seafood sycophants. The chewy and crispy texture of the pie itself is about as close as you'll get to the original Caserta's pizza from way back in the day. The typical 45-minute wait is time well spent. And there's free delivery seven days a week, serving Bristol, Warren, and North Portsmouth. 366 Wood Street, Bristol, (401) 254-0852.

Best way for a cheapskate to be generous

Get accused of being cheap, especially when you're paying? Mess up the heads of your accuser by taking him or her to a restaurant that has two-fer meals that are worthwhile for their gustatory as well as budgetary value. At 1200 Ocean Grill on Thursday nights from October through mid-May, $29.95 will get a couple a lot. The included side salads are mesclun, the wine is quite drinkable, and the entrée portions aren't dinky lunch-size. Tangy chicken piccata and sole Francese cooked with restraint are typical, as are tenderloin tips that deserve the adjective. Two-for-one meals with a bottle of wine can be had for five or 10 bucks less elsewhere, but not with Bogle Chardonnay or Merlot? The proprietors of 1200 won't go broke feeding us well, since most diners order an appetizer and a dessert or two, knowing that the tab will still be low. 1200 Ocean Road, Narragansett, (401) 782-1777.

Best space-saver for serving pizza

You know how everyone scrambles to move the salt and pepper, grated cheese, pepper flakes, flatware, and napkins to make room for a pizza? Martino's has solved this problem by serving pizzas on pedestal trays, with a foot only about as big as a saucer. There you have it: a large (12- or 16-inch) disc of hot dough, sauce, cheese, and possibly roasted garlic or carmelized onions, floating above your plates. Baked in a 780-degree brick oven, this pizza has a crisp and chewy crust and outrageously delicious toppings. Pasta dishes are also good, many with mix-and-match ingredients. For example, you can add on shrimp or chicken to the penne with roasted eggplant, which includes zucchini, kalamata olives, and roasted red peppers, tossed in an oven-dried tomato sauce and dotted with goat cheese. Keep Martino's menu in your car for quick takeout! 1051 Ten Rod Road, North Kingstown, (401) 295-9382.

Best old-school fish and chips

Stadium Fish & Chips is the place in Cranston for traditional fish and chips. We've come so far technology-wise, yet cannot find decent housing for fried food. Serving fried fare (particularly seafood) to-go in steam-conducting Styrofoam, or those awful plastic containers used by franchise locations ruins the effect. Stadium Fish & Chips sticks to ye olde-fashioned way, with a stack of newspaper on the counter, while scores of fried fish line the shelves throughout the day, from the blue-collar lunch rush to the Friday night wait. Unassuming is an understatement, yet the tiny space serves up large portions quickly with tableside service available. A lengthy line literally out the door is not uncommon, and while chatting with any of the regulars (one who travels from West Greenwich every Friday for an order) it becomes abundantly clear that people around here are serious about their fish and chip. And any small-time proprietor claiming to serve "fresh" fish and chips every day must have a distributor in Atlantis, which is one reason why Stadium is only open on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. 1079 Park Avenue, Cranston, (401) 944-0971.

Best version of the state dessert

Rhode Island wouldn't be the same without an Italian restaurant on every corner, and most of those restaurants wouldn't be worth their snuff if they didn't serve tiramisu, that Italian trifle-like dessert that took the state (and the country) by storm during the '90s. One of the best is at Venice, which takes such things very seriously, since they host weddings and conferences as well as dinner guests. Tiramisu translates as "carry me up," the implication being heavenward, based on the celestial combination of sponge cake or ladyfingers dipped in a coffee-Marsala blend and layered with Mascarpone and grated chocolate. The trick is to let the flavors meld, so that you're not encountering a clump of Mascarpone or a bit of dry ladyfinger. And not to be too heavy on espresso or -- heresy! -- chocolate syrup. At Venice, they stick to the basics, and the proof is in the pudding . . . er, tiramisu. 165 Shore Road, Westerly, (401) 348-0055.

Best name for the lowly pot pie

The French call them tourtiere, the Cornish "pasties," and Americans dubbed them "pot pies." But when East Greenwich resident Jeff Jordan wanted to turn his mother-in-law Joyce Beretta's recipe into sellable pot pies, he christened them Newport Upper Crust. Though the company is no longer based in Newport County (offices are in Lincoln), they still sell their frozen pot pies at most supermarkets in Rhode Island. Their best-seller is chicken, stuffed with white-meat chunks, peas, and carrots in a cream sauce, topped by a thin biscuit crust. (Harder to find but equally worthwhile is their vegetable pie, with 11 kinds of vegetables in a Parmesan-shaded sauce.) Jordan's name for the pies implies high quality and also describes their makeup: they have no bottom crust. So, for a quick pick-me-up meal, stick a couple in the oven and call it homemade! In freezer sections of local supermarkets, or call (401) 724-6948.

Best dish named for a singer

Attaching celebrity names to foods is nothing new. Look at oysters Rockefeller or eggs Benedict. Or the Providence sandwiches named after local pols. But for a restaurant based on Jamaican cuisine, it would be almost traitorous not to name a dish for the island's most famous performer. The "Bob Marley Special" at Tina's Caribbean is a blend of the exotic Caribbean fruit ackee, soaked and cut-up salt cod, rice, onions, and peppers, all scrambled together with eggs. The latter four ingredients sing a familiar omelet tune until the cod hits a salty high note and the ackee a sweet low one. The ensemble doesn't as much harmonize as chime in individually like a round, coming out just fine in the end. Tina's also has curried goat, jerk chicken, "Ziggy Marley wings," terrific "patties" (both meat and veggie), and memorable plaintains made special by "the blessin' in them," according to Tina. 206 Broad Street, Providence, (401) 621-7779.

Best messy food

They don't mess around at LJ's BBQ, setting places with soft white paper napkins. Nope. On the condiment table with the bucket of barbecue sauce are rolls of industrial-strength brown paper towels -- you're encouraged to tear off as much as you need. And you'll need plenty, to hunker down with LJ's half-rack of ribs (seven) or to pick up the drumstick from a quarter- or a half-chicken. You'll also need those makeshift napkins so your fingers aren't too slippery to lift a fork to LJ's scrumptious "sides" -- yams, collards, mac-and-cheese, red beans and rice, cole slaw, baked beans -- and home-baked pies, most often pecan and sweet potato. When the food's this good, you've got to toss all inhibitions aside and just dive into it. (And check the bathroom mirror for barbecue smears before you leave!) 605 Douglas Avenue, Providence, (401) 274-1227.

Best eye candy over breakfast

Finding barely a few grains of feta cheese in your spinach and feta omelet is hardly the worst of human experiences, but it can be a wee bit frustrating. In fact, considering the relative ease of cooking eggs, properly buttering toast, and seasoning home fries, the general difficulty of obtaining a good breakfast continues to puzzle us. Although the Brickway on Wickenden does a competent job with the most important meal of the day, offering a range of the usual egg, pancake, and French toast offerings, we have encountered the feta cheese paucity on more than one occasion -- even after asking for an extra amount of this ingredient. Nonetheless, we keep going back to the Brickway, lured by the changing cast of young lovelies who serve the food (dining on the sidewalk during the warmer months is also quite nice). There's something sublime about eating breakfast while surrounded by such pulchritude -- a drawing card that probably hasn't gone unnoticed by the eatery's management. 234 Wickenden Street, Providence, (401) 751-2477.

Best outdoor gazing while grazing

There are plenty of places to eat and, it sometimes seems, almost as many where you can dine al fresco. But Caffe Dolce Vita is one where you get a better subject matter for people watching than drivers negotiating traffic. The café is at the quiet side of a plaza, DePasquale Square, and the neighborhood has not yet been so yuppified that the live poultry market next door has been driven away yet. Local kids have been known to play in the baroque fountain. The after-dinner crowd here may not get as Felliniesque as the name of the place implies, but their menu will attract the curious if not the bizarre. From fennel biscotti with a nip of pepper, panna cotta more muscular than crème brûlée, and butchissimo tartuffi (gelato in studs and leather), desserts are myriad and marvelous. 59 DePasquale Square, Providence, (401) 331-8240.

Best over-the-hill pizza pub

For close to 40 years, the Big Cheese & Pub has enjoyed big success, quite frankly out of control during the weekends, and with good reason. The Big Cheese can do no wrong with Greek-style pizza with an Italian flair. The secret is in the ingredients, particularly the dough. Rather than have it shipped in from 18-wheelers or sit around and lose its flavor and integrity, the Big Cheese churns out hundreds of pounds of dough by hand each morning, then add top-quality mozzarella cheese and toppings to their product, including thick cuts of pepperoni and sausage and marinated artichoke hearts. Try one "Italian-style" complete with a spicy and chunky (and, of course, homemade) sauce and extra-crispy crust. Mediterranean-influenced gourmet pizzas, pasta dishes, 20 different grinders, and 16 calzone choices (a steal at $4 to $6) offer a solid choice over the plethora of fast-food joints, diners, and Italian bakeries along Reservoir Avenue. And what else keeps the customers coming back? The Big Cheese lives up to its name -- enormous pizzas with family-friendly prices. There are no gimmicks, no need for $18 combo meal coupons. Run in and pick up at the front door, or park in the rear and imbibe in the pub area. 606 Reservoir Avenue, Cranston, (401) 467-8210.

Best decadence on a plate

Those of us who are unreformed choc-o-holics have learned to look for the cacao percentage on bittersweet bars (anything above 65 percent should satisfy the craving). For the chocolate molten cakes at Napa Valley Grille, they use one that's WHAT percent. They also refrigerate the batter overnight, so that its 15 minutes in the oven are just enough time to firm the soufflé top and melt the chocolatey middle. Yum! Served warm with a scoop of hazelnut ice cream, this dessert could have contributed to the Fall of Rome with its addictive powers. Not that the rest of Napa's menu is anything to bypass: grilled specialties range from pork and lamb to sea scallops and flat-iron steak. The restaurant also lives up to its name with its wine list, boasting more than 400 selections from Napa Valley and other California vineyards. 111 Providence Place, Providence, (401) 270-6272.

Best way to win over El Supremo

If you ever find yourself sitting down spooning flan with Fidel, trying to convince him to free a few poets from prison, cross your fingers that this will be taking place at 10 Prime Steak & Sushi, where a splash of their perfect Mojitos would make a beer coaster spin. The Cuban summer cooler -- light rum, fresh lime juice, sugar or cane syrup, club soda, and plenty of mint leaves -- was originally called the Draque and was devised a century and a half ago by Don Facundo Bacardi, the rum hombre. A sliver of sugar cane embellishes the Pine Street version. The word mojito doesn't mean anything more exotic than "little mixture," but after all, exotic is as exotic does. If you do end up buying a round or two for Fidel, don't forget to recite a few poems. 55 Pine Street, Providence, (401) 453-2333.

Best thing since sliced bread

If you know that Frank R. Algiere makes 125 loaves of focaccia a day for the eatery that bears his initials, FRA's, then you'd be foolish to order a sandwich on anything else. Especially when these moon-shaped breads are cut into quarters and stuffed with everything from Italian cold cuts to a chicken cutlet. FRA's signature focaccia sandwiches are sauteed green beans or spinach with roasted red peppers and fresh mozzarella. Block Islanders craving the latter call in orders to be sent back by ferry or plane. While at FRA's, don't pass up the pizzas. The four-cheese variety doesn't trick you with parmesan and asiago as two of the four. It has dollops of ricotta and chèvre, along with ricotta and romano. The veggie has plenty of broccoli, spinach, and artichokes with pesto sauce. Now isn't that enough to make you drive to Misquamicut in the winter? Shore Road and Crandall Avenue, Westerly, (401) 596-2888.

Best brunch to break the Benedict habit

Shake up your taste buds and do your heart a favor -- lay off the Hollandaise one weekend morning and head for the tang and fire of Kabob 'n' Curry's brunches. Saturday's buffet is vegan; Sunday's is omnivore. Though they vary from week to week, you can usually find several different curry dishes, from mild to hot, from chicken to chickpea, plus three chutneys, a yogurt raita, two salads, roasted naan bread, and rice pudding. The hot, sweet, and savory spices that ring changes through the sauces of Indian food seem every bit as effective as caffeine for waking up mind and body. Inhale the cumin and cardamom, savor the bite of cayenne and the mustiness of cilantro. Appreciate the magic that happens to ordinary peas and cauliflower when they meet coconut milk and mangos. It's downright inspiring! 262 Thayer Street, Providence, (401) 273-8844.

Best new meanings for steamship insignia

Though the truth is that the S.S. in S.S. Dion's name stands for owners Steve and Susan Dion, it's more fun to imagine that it means "salmon and swordfish," their biggest sellers, or "shrimp scampi," another customer favorite. Most appropriate would be "seafood and sunsets." For the combination of a golden glow on the waters of Bristol Harbor and some of the freshest seafood around has brought people back for the past 19 years. Diners choose from six seafood pastas, 11 seafood entrees, four grilled seafood steaks, and almost a dozen briney appetizers, from steamers to shrimp kabobs, clam chowder to fried calamari. You could bring your entire family, in-laws and outlaws, and have no repeats in the seafood orders! And if you choose a warm day, spring through fall, you can sit on the deck and feel as though you're on a steamship . . . the real S.S. 520 Thames Street, Bristol, (401) 253-2884.

Best decision for the indecisive

For the diner who tends to linger over the appetizer list until their tablemates are drumming their fingers, a sampler plate of several items is always a good idea. That's why the meze (Greek for appetizer or hors d'oeuvre) at Woody's is especially welcome. It is served with a pile of hot, grilled homemade flatbread -- the better to scoop up every last bit of delicious white bean puree or rustic white bean relish, to smear with chèvre or to accompany a bite of grilled portobello or eggplant. And each of these homemade canapes may be decorated with marinated red pepper. Obviously, this isn't your regular cold cut-and-sliced cheese antipasto. But nothing at Woody's is what you'd expect: "brick-seared" chicken, pistachio-encrusted lamb, a quesadilla with chipotle-lime crème fraiche. Add to this eclectic mix excellent French-style desserts -- fruit croustades or crème brulée -- and you see that the meze philosophy pervades the restaurant. 21 Pier Marketplace, Narragansett, (401) 789-9500.

Best bauble in a bottle

You can never tell what cleverness the Japanese will turn out. From Toyotas to Pokémon, their engineering feats can be as playful as they are practical. Take Ramune fruit-flavored sodas, for example (sometimes called Ramune-aid), available at Sushi-Go! There's a glass marble just under the plastic covering on the lip of the glass bottle. The cap itself has a peg that pushes the marble into the bottle (with a heavy blow, that is) and then it sits, rolling back and forth, in a trough partway down the neck of the bottle. It forms a face when the bottle is empty and a seal for the carbonation when it's not. Sushi-Go! keeps the melon and raspberry flavors, and they are excellent accompaniments to the terrific sushi variations -- try the eel and avocado (the eel is cooked, not raw!) and the Newport roll, with tuna and salmon. 215 Goddard Row (Brick Marketplace), Newport, (401) 849-5155.

Best potato slice

Checkers Pizza on the east side of Providence has been feeding the college kids for more than 10 years. (Their coupons adorn every mini-fridge on College Hill.) The expanded lounge area, complete with tabletop Donkey Kong Jr. and Arkanoid (the most aggravating video game ever created), and some damn good pizza brings 'em back for more amongst the plethora of pizza joints and burrito shops blooming all over Thayer Street. Checkers offers just about every topping imaginable for carnivores and veggie lovers alike, including artichokes and green olives. And the consistently great pie can be attributed to the fact that the menu focuses only on pizza. But the main attraction has long been the two slices and a pop for a mere $3.25. There are usually six or seven pies to choose from, including recent additions barbecue chicken and a white slice with garlic and potato -- the tastiest double dose of carbs north of Manhattan. Thinly-sliced red bliss potatoes are caramelized atop mozzarella, fresh garlic, and olive oil. It hasn't received its props on the chalkboard menu yet, so tell 'em we sent you. 167 Benefit Street, Providence, (401) 273-8890.

Best variation on the state appetizer

How many ways have you had fried calamari? Sure, "regular," as they say in Rhode Island, is fried squid rings tossed with pepperoncini. But the batters vary, the sauces change (olives? marinara? lemon juice and wine?); sometimes there are tentacles and sometimes there aren't. At Trieste, you can be assured that there aren't. And there's no grease either, since the squid bodies are grilled for an unbeatable smokiness and served with spinach and balsamic-caramelized onions. Another favorite at Trieste is the pumpkin tortelloni in a Marsala cream sauce, with artichoke hearts, asparagus, and oven-dried tomatoes. And the house-made desserts are worth a trip, even if you never go near the squid: fruit tartes, such as the pear with almond mascarpone topping, homemade gelati, and biscotti. Looks like several trips are in order, each time starting off with grilled calamari. 994 Boston Neck Road (near Bonnet Shores), Narragansett, (401) 783-9944.

Best drink from a recycled bottle

"Why fix what's not broken?" could be the motto for Bill Sgambato and his Yacht Club Bottling Works. Yacht Club sodas are put into 28-ounce glass (a must for soda aficionados) bottles that have been repeatedly sterilized and refilled since they first appeared in the '40s. Customers get a rebate on the bottles they bring back ($3 per 12, $8.75 per 24), and they can choose from 18 flavors. Yacht Club is one of only two bottling companies left in the state and they no longer deliver. You must show up in Centredale or, if you're lucky, bump into one at a Providence restaurant -- Downcity Diner, Rue de l'Espoir, or Nick's On Broadway. (They also make OOP's juices.) Yacht Club uses cane sugar, not fructose syrup, and spring water, and their sodas taste less sweet than most. Try the lemon lime or orange and you'll be transported to the '50s, complete with glass bottle in hand. 2239 Mineral Spring Avenue, North Providence, (401) 231-9290.

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Issue Date: November 22 - 28, 2002