Dining Review

A Walk Through Southern Italy at Enoteca Umberto

A delicious, expert-driven approach to Italian cuisine

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Though I appreciate Federal Hill’s established collection of Italian restaurants, I always find it refreshing to see a newcomer on Atwells. Enoteca Umberto opened in July, but its small size and word-of-mouth marketing mean it’s still a bit of a secret.

Atwells was quiet on a mid-week night, and we took our time with a cocktail while browsing the menu. We both chose drinks featuring the sweet, dark Amarena cherry: me, an Amarena Cherry Bellini ($9) and my husband, an Amaro cocktail made with Cappelletti (similar to Campari) and sweet vermouth ($9). The cocktail had some of the components of a Negroni, but was a sweeter and lighter sip.

Our La Collina Antipasti for two ($12) featured coppa, hot and regular sopressata, plus three cheeses: piave, fontinella and pepato – a hard sheep’s milk cheese with peppercorns. The platter came with bread, two green olives, two figs and two little circular taralli wine biscuits.

Co-owner Umberto explained the philosophy of the Enoteca, which he runs with girlfriend and chef Lia: everything is homemade, locally grown, purchased on Federal Hill or imported from Italy.

As you might guess from its name, the Enoteca’s wine list is a focus. An Italian enoteca is traditionally a combination bar and shop, a place to drink and purchase local wines. Umberto coordinates with a wine distributor to import southern Italian wine not found on most local lists. We ordered glasses of the Menhir Primitivo ($8), described as having “lots of swagger,” and the Aglianico D’Irpinia ($12), which had “licorice flavors” and “leather spice.” Both complemented our antipasto.

As we were sipping our wine, a farmer from Walker’s Roadside Stand in Little Compton walked in with a crate of heirloom tomatoes. He set aside a perfectly ripe yellow golf ball-sized example, asking Umberto to slice it up for us. What good timing! After this taste, we ordered more of the medium-sized ripe green and yellow tomatoes quartered with buffalo mozzarella. They were enhanced by a hefty grate of flavorful lemon zest and fruity Calabrian olive oil, which Umberto noted is sold up the street at Roma.

We decided to try a freselle next. As Umberto explained, freselle is a doughnut-shaped whole wheat bread, which is sliced into two thinner layers, then re-baked until hard. Its long shelf life makes it a household staple in southern Italy. To counteract the crispness, it’s prepared with juicy toppings that soak into and soften the bread. We ordered the Tonno Freselle ($9), topped with imported oil-packed tuna, red onion and pepperoncino. The carb-averse can order the freselle toppings on a salad (though what a shame that would be).

Still curious about the wine selections, we made the unorthodox switch to lighter wines. I had the Frappato IGT ($11), a light and fruity red from southeastern Sicily, and my husband had the Lacryma Christi Bianco ($11), a white made from Coda di Volpe grapes grown on the soil of Mount Vesuvius.

Returning to the top of the menu, we shared a Bruschetta ($8) with ricotta, artichoke hearts and lemon zest. Each order has three large bruschetti. The other Bruschetta options were tempting as well: Gorgonzola fig prosciutto and cannellini garlic sopressata.

Finally, we turned our sights to dessert and chose the Fichi al Cioccolato ($6), or chocolate-dipped dried figs and the dessert special, a chocolate-filled chocolate panettone topped with Amarena cherries and a large spoonful of mascarpone ($6).

We pored over the selection of aperitifs, digestives and liqueurs, many of which we’d never tried. Noting our indecision, Umberto pointed out the Voli, or flight, which includes three ($18). I had a flight with the Stinging Nettle and Lemon Peel Grappa, Amarena Cherry Grappa (both made by the Giovi distillery) and Cardamaro, a digestif made with the cardoon, a bitter relative of the artichoke also used to flavor the more common Cynar. My husband ordered the Dumante Verdenoce Pistachio ($10), a pistachio liqueur. After this journey through the Enoteca’s liquor cabinet, we returned to reality with a round of macchiatos ($1.50/ea).

Though you could approach a meal at Enoteca Umberto in a more traditional order, I liked our slow and erratic ramble through the menu. The small size of the menu and restaurant is advantageous: Umberto makes every diner feel like a welcome guest while Lia gives every dish her full attention.

Someone recently asked me if there are any undiscovered pearls in Providence’s restaurant scene. You’d never guess there could be one hidden in plain sight on Atwells.

Enoteca Umberto | 256 Atwells Avenue | 272-8466