Providence has a variety of funky and diverse neighborhoods that are each distinct – yet blend into a city that haunts like home. Atwells Avenue in the Federal Hill neighborhood connects a few districts and is rich in its Italian immigrant heritage, bustling restaurant scene, and dark and fascinating criminal history.
Federal Hill back in the day was a not-so-underground center of operations for a variety of mob-affiliated business ventures and games of power. Figures like Raymond Patriarca, the notorious boss of La Cosa Nostra Crime Family, were centers of discussion. We were walking down the same streets and loitering around the same corners that he and his posse did.
One of the unique ways to capture both the foodie scene and these true stories is through a Crime & Cuisine walking tour with the Providence Tour Company. They have been hosting historical walking tours across the city since 2018 and finally decided to add one with a wine tasting! I took that tour recently, and it went a little like this…
The bubbly tour guide, Allison, kicked off the introductions with a disclaimer that they do not discriminate against Italians, they’re just the ones we love to chronicle. The fact of the matter is that there was little opportunity for many European immigrants in the late 1800s or early 1900s. Many groups competed against each other and saw organized crime as an opportunity to escape impoverishment. Of course, there is a lot more to the situation than just that…
The aforementioned Patriarca spent his teenage years with wholesome activities such as hijacking, armed robbery, assault, safecracking, bootlegging, and auto theft. This lifestyle led to the Providence Board of Public Safety naming him “public enemy No. 1” and eventually to jail time.
After serving a few years and getting out early on parole, Patriarca moved his illicit operation from Boston to Federal Hill in Providence in the 1940s. The business ‘Coin-o-Matic Distributors’, was a cash-only tobacco business that acted as a front for the New England mob to launder money, payroll goons, promote gambling, order hits, and conduct other business.
After each piece of neighborhood history, the snacks started rolling in. One of the six restaurant stops is Venda Ravioli, a family-owned Italian specialty store with a variety of imported cheeses, meats, packaged goods, and my personal favorite, their restaurant-quality homemade ravioli (it’s in the name I guess!).
We were presented with a beautiful array of honey-dressed fruit and Italian cheeses, but no RICO law in the land will keep me away from their prosciutto-wrapped melon! After a detour for an espresso, we were back on the Avenue.
Well-storied Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci got his start on Atwells while he was serving as a special prosecutor in a murder and conspiracy case against Patriarca. He popped onto the Providence political scene as an anti-corruption mayoral candidate and with a little help from, surprise, the Mob, Cianci won the office of mayor in 1974.
Sipping on a red blend from Gasbarro’s Wine, a 125-year-old wine store, they shared their history of being one of the only wine stores in Providence to survive prohibition through sacramental wine and homebrew wine kits. We heard about Willie Marfeo and the pantsless pinch, brawls with Mayor Buddy, and other layered characters that gave this specific block a rich backstory.
Some of these characters are still posted on the block! They just aren’t as young as they used to be. The tour lasted just under 4 hours and was honestly perfect timing as it ended just as happy hour was starting and the street came alive with live music, neighbors, and visitors alike.