Locale Profile: Vinya Test Kitchen: It’s Not Just Food, It’s an Experience

IMG_2371“Fresh, seasonal, local”: the concept is as ancient as Mesopotamia, but in recent years these words have become hip new capstones in food culture, bringing us back to simpler days of eating produce and products cultivated from the land around us. While the concept is simple in theory — eat what you grow! — today’s culinary talent is anything but, with weekly menus resembling reality TV shows, challenging chefs to create brilliant new dishes using only a bag of, say, parsnips, pea shoots and sorrel.

Or, in the case of 23-year-old Stefano Mariotta, a “bag” of celeriac root, gruyere and yogurt — which he puréed, formed into a shell, and added to a honey-salsa verde to create the most delectable Celeriac “Taco” I could have ever imagined. I still have dreams about it, along with his Beet Ravioli and Carrot “Terrine.” These are just a few of the offerings I sampled at Vinya’s Test Kitchen one Friday night, in the heart of Downcity Providence, as part of a multi-course tasting via Rosmarin.

image3 (4)Vinya’s Test Kitchen is owned by Massimiliano (Max) and Alethia Mariotta, a man with more than 30 years of experience in the restaurant industry, as both a chef and a businessman. The fact that his son, Stefano, is the current Chef de Cuisine (Michelin-trained in Switzerland, no less) is due solely to timing: Stefano needed a kitchen and Vinya’s needed a chef, the “perfect storm” that allows this restaurant to be a family affair, at least for the time being — that is the essence of a test kitchen. The chefs are testing the kitchen in hopes of establishing their own restaurant someday, and Vinya’s is acting as the intermediary step — a restaurant incubator, if you will.

It took several tries, but finally Max was able to help me understand this vision of the test kitchen, and it truly is — as he says — “a labor of love.” The goal for him in opening Vinya’s was not to make a lot of money (“we don’t want to lose money, either, but we were not thinking about the profit for ourselves”). Instead, Max simply wants to coach and mentor young chefs, offer them a chance to launch their first restaurant, and to give them experience and resources to see if they have what it takes to create a successful business. Together, they discuss the concept and the menu, what’s working and what can be improved, and Max offers his expertise to the fledgling chefs. “There’s a thin line between success and failure,” he explains, “and I want to give them the chance to be successful.”

vinyaPrior to Stefano moving in, there were a handful of other chefs who’d had their hand at the test kitchen, experimenting with a range of concepts from tapas to raw vegan. But the Swiss-inspired artistic cuisine has been a fan favorite, and Rosmarin is celebrating its one-year anniversary at Vinya’s. If you recall, Rosmarin was once located inside the Hotel Providence, a quiet dining room with high-backed white plush chairs, napkins folded like swans, chandeliers and porcelain plates. But Vinya’s offers a different vibe: a small, hip(ster) space with 18 cushioned bar seats and stools, Japanese-style ceramics, window seats along Westminster where customers can people-watch, or my personal favorite, an open kitchen where patrons can dine while observing the chef at work (and give him instantaneous kudos, and ask questions such as, “Are you SURE you’re only 23 years old?”). It’s more than just amazing food — it’s a one-of-a-kind experience.

And evidently this venue is not only more my style, it’s more of everyone’s style — there are nights the Mariottas cannot seat everyone who wants to dine, much to Max’s dismay. He hates turning people away. But it’s a small space, and those who order the tasting menu are given a two-hour time slot: this is the only way to fully engage with each of the 6 to 12 courses, 12 being the most of any restaurant in Providence, according to Max. I’d recommend calling ahead for reservations, and take note that it is BYOB (but if you forget, ENO Fine Wines is conveniently situated next door).

22181209_1882718532045309_3299186022075873275_oI don’t know how much longer Stefano’s Rosmarin concept will remain at the test kitchen, with the thin line of success solidifying with each perfectly cooked Georges Bank Scallops, his artistic palate backed by support from the tasting palate. One thing is certain, however, and that is Vinya’s Test Kitchen is going to hold many rising stars of New England, chefs who “take humble ingredients and create something spectacular.” It’s the best of both the old world and the new one.

Vinya: 225 Westminster St., PVD

Open Tuesday – Saturday, reservations: 401-500-5189

Note: a la carte only available Tuesday – Thursday

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