Creative Italian worth a trip
by Bill Rodriguez
(401) 765-3711, 153 Hamlet Ave., Woonsocket
Open Tues-Sat, 5-10 p.m.
Major credit cards
No handicapped access
Up Blackstone Valley way, Gian Carlo's has gained a solid reputation. Not
because Italian cuisine is regarded as exotique in this bastion of
French- Canadian-American pride, but because the food is consistently good.
We're always curious about culinary standards in the hinterlands, so we
ventured forth to the farthest reaches of Rhode Island. (In a state the size of
greater Fort Worth, Woonsocket is about as far as the intrepid can range.)
The decor is appropriate for an informal restaurant that wants to make you
feel comfortable while reminding you of elegance. Fanned napkins at every place
setting, but paper atop the tablecloths, bistro style. Gilt-framed pictures
covering all available wall space, containing prints trying for a Renaissance
air. We're there early in the week, so only the central dining area is open,
overlooking the wood grill. Other rooms open up as required. We had come
without a reservation one recent weekend and had a choice of smoky bar room or
an hour wait, so be sure to call ahead. A familiar but unidentified aria greets
us in the background as we're seated, but Ol' Blue Eyes and Tony Bennett soon
replace the bel canto. Gian Carlo's doesn't want you intimidated.
An unspoken contract is set soon after the basket of Italian bread arrives. We
think our waiter has forgotten to bring butter, so I prepare to make my
customary request for olive oil. But when he returns, he, unasked, pours olive
oil into two plates for us. I know this is a place after my own heart.
Oddly, there is no soup on the menu. We peruse the appetizers as I sip a spicy
Shiraz, an addition that evening to the numerous wines by the glass. There's
carpaccio, steamed mussels, and four varieties of pizza -- including a "pizza
patriottica" with the red, white and green of the Italian flag in
roasted red peppers, mozzarella, and fresh basil. Our decision is made when
Johnnie notices that in addition to the traditionally prepared calamari
fritti ($8.95), the squid accompanied by hot peppers, there is calamari
Caprese ($9.95). One of my missions in life is to search out variations
on our Official State Appetizer, and spread the word if they prove worthy.
Well, this preparation would make a journey to Woonsocket worthwhile if the
city were still in Acadia. The lightly battered pieces are tossed in a balsamic
glaze, with plum tomatoes and red onions; marvelously tangy. My counterpart
doesn't even pick out the tentacles. Later, when we express our appreciation,
our waiter reveals the secret -- at least it's not announced on the menu --
ingredient: mascarpone cheese as the thickener. Clever. Flour wouldn't have
softened the flavor as nicely.
The pasta descriptions are revealing. White onions in one preparation, but
Vidalia in another. "A hint of truffle oil" in a $12.95 spaghetti dish. Johnnie
indulges in a risotto rather than checking out a less challenging pasta. Well,
her risotto di mare ($16.95) is the best I've tasted in years, the rice infused
with a seafood broth and creamy but not over-cooked. There are plenty of
scallops and in-shell mussels, plus three fat grilled shrimp and fresh basil.
The "hint of Champagne" noted in the menu isn't lost in the flavors, offering
more than a pampering touch.
I choose the pollo e gambieri alla griglia ($21.95). It's double-duty,
but hey, I take this work seriously. The twin breasts are thick enough to
remain moist, and the four skewered shrimp are daubed with an arugula pesto,
for a novel variation. The earthiness of the green doesn't come across as fully
as I'd anticipated, even when tasted alone, but nevertheless works well with
the smoky shrimp. Accompanying is a grilled onion, fresh spinach in a balsamic
vinaigrette, and buttery garlic mashed red bliss potatoes. A fine medley,
especially when I use the lemon wedge on the chicken as well as on the
Since everything has been so successful, we pick two items off the dessert
tray ($5.50 each), rather than sharing one. Johnnie has the only house-made
selection: crème brûlée prepared in the Italian style, not
afraid of the nutmeg. Delicious. As if to emulate a Persian rug, which always
has one stitch going the wrong way because only Allah is perfect, my chocolate
mousse topped with tiny chocolate merengues is far too sweet to finish. I like
the touch of fallibility. Just so Gian Carlo's stays on top of that exquisite