Over the past few years, Providence’s dining scene has morphed into an impressive mix of both traditional and modern styles. Take a walk through Downcity and you’ll find a small restaurant with the best of both worlds – Figidini Wood Fire Eatery. We met up with chef Frankie Cecchinelli to get a glimpse of his unique cooking that comes from one source: wood fire. He shares with us his love and respect for Neapolitan pizza, and the journey to perfecting this simple, yet challenging pie.
Is there a certain culinary inspiration that draws you to the kitchen?
I was never “formally trained.” We had a restaurant growing up, so I got a lot of my experience at a very young age. I was watching my mother cook, tasting different things and loving the scents of the kitchen. A certain smell will trigger a memory – a very important inspiration for me. I follow my nose. That’s what guides me.
Do you have an ethos that you follow? How does it instruct your cooking?
The biggest word in the kitchen here is “awareness.” It’s the one thing I try to instill in my staff and for myself. When you’re cooking with a wood fire grill and oven, you have to be respectful. It’s not a cliche; you will get burned. You have to be aware of all the little things. If you respect the area you work in and pay attention to the details, that’s going to transpire into your food.
Cooking with fire is so primeval. What drew you to the idea of a wood fire eatery?
The flavor of cooking over a fire is something that stuck with me since childhood. When I tasted food that wasn’t cooked that way, it seemed to be missing something essential – that burst of flavor that only a wood fire can give.
Can you describe what guests can expect from authentic, Neapolitan-style cooking?
Neapolitan pizza is a totally different beast. It’s incredibly delicate. The flour has been milled over and over and over again. With that super fine dough, the right ingredients and a very high temperature oven, you get this pillowy, soft, wet pizza. To do it right is a serious challenge.
There are many Neapolitan-style places that will accommodate the American palate, make it drier, make it crispier, put it in a box, cut it up. But I’m trying to do it as authentic as possible. That’s why a fork and knife are a necessity here.
A true Neapolitan pizza is a rare find. What’s the secret to making it?
That Stefano Ferrera oven blows me away. Down to every last little nuance. The floor is four different pieces of forged volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius. That same ash is used in the soil where I get my tomatoes from. I think when you match up a tomato and an oven, in that certain way, that’s the secret to Neapolitan pizza.
What’s the one item on your menu a first-time guest must have?
It’s all about the Margherita pizza. Those San Marzano tomatoes, the buffalo mozzarella from Campania, sea salt, basil, olive oil. It’s the
simplest thing, but incredibly challenging to get just right. I tried 12 different tomatoes for that pizza when I first fired up the oven in here. I’ve been making pizza for 25 years. I’m three years into Neapolitan-style, and I just had a major breakthrough about four or five months ago.
Are there moments of doubt when people are trying your pizza for the first time?
It’s always good to have somebody come back from Naples and say how authentic my pizza really is. It means a lot to me. One of our frequent diners grew up in Naples and comes here several times a month for that experience. That’s a great reassurance. When the pizza leaves the kitchen and arrives at the table, I look to see that first bite and nod of approval, like, “Yeah. Oh, yeah.” That’s what I’m into.
67 Washington Street