It is affordable and simple yet inventive and extremely thoughtfully prepared
The tomato. Lush, blushing fruit that begs to be cut, squished, squeezed, juiced, pureed, roasted and liquefied. It ripens heavily on its vine, its shiny smooth skin growing thinner and more taut as its flesh matures, straining until it splits open, exposing the raw, wet, acidic ambrosia that warmly lies within. Indigenous to South America, it was first cultivated in Mexico and did not find its way to Europe until the Spanish colonization in the 1500s, where it was quickly integrated into Spanish cuisine but did not reach popularity as more than a table ornament in Italy until the late 17th century. Now the basis for traditional food preparations across Europe, Africa, India and the Americas, the tomato has been furiously making up for lost time. It is delightful when eaten fresh, but it has wooed continents with its wet willingness to be transformed into sauce. Sauce, the basis of every good meal. Sauce that you spoon over rice, sauce that tenderizes and permeates meat and vegetable alike, sauce that you scoop up with bread, sauce that you lick off your fingers, sauce that you sip, dip and drip. Tangy red and pink sauce filled with strongly addictive properties. If there is a worldwide love for any one thing beyond air and sunshine, that love is for sauce.
We went to Rosalina for a quick dinner on our way to an event in downtown Providence. At 50 Aborn Street, it occupies the space previously inhabited by the late Cuban Revolution, culinary pioneers of the Let’s Put Adobo on Some Icky Toast and Pretend it’s a Thing movement. No longer blighted with plastic palm fronds and offensively crappy margaritas, the dining room is welcoming and open with several larger booths and a line of smaller banquette tables that can be rearranged to accommodate smaller or larger parties. Clusters of glass globe chandeliers provide a warming light, and portraits of the owner’s family line the walls.
We ordered a carafe of the wine on tap — god bless this fad — and for the price of a glass elsewhere we received a robust little jug of Paso Robles, a perfectly cheery accompaniment for all the sauce I was planning to eat. We were given a plate of olive oil, butter and ricotta cheese to accompany the bowl of warm bread that was immediately placed before us. You can sort of expect butter or oil with your bread most of the time, if bread is set before you, but being given free cheese is the kind of thing that makes one almost weep for gratitude and love for all humanity. We started with three appetizers, and ended with them too — by the time we cleaned our plates we were much, much too full to consider the entrée we decided to order after the first round of food.
The eggplant Parmesan arrived in a tiny cauldron surrounded by legions of grilled toasts, as did the sautéed shrimp, served in a steaming, bright red tomato and vermouth broth. The eggplant was breaded and baked — it didn’t seem greasy enough to have been fried — and layered with ricotta cheese and a rich, thick marinara. The sauce won my heart at first whiff. It smelled intensely red, bold and concentrated. It was too thick to permit the eggplant to get soggy nor for the ricotta to get diluted. The broth for the shrimp was lighter and brighter and an absolute joy, singing with garlic and a touch of lemon. It was advertised as spicy, and it was equipped with a gentle, apologetic heat that took great care not to offend. The portions of each were generous without being gross, and the crostinis served as the perfect vessels to transport each bite, conscientiously supporting all that sauce with a mindfulness to not overwhelm.
We also tried the locally made (my guess is Venda) grilled Italian sausage with caramelized onions and hot Italian peppers. This was served very prettily on a hot plate, the juicy sliced sausages arranged in a starburst formation around the peppers and onions. The anticipated spiciness again fell on the milder side of the spectrum, but the surprising delightfulness of the dish was born from an unexpected and very welcome lemony-ness. The peppers and onions were positively tart — a perfect counterbalance to the richness of the pork and cheese that spread our table. All three items worked harmoniously together, quite different enough in flavor to prohibit monotony but very conducive to sauce swapping. And oh, the SAUCE. This visit to Rosalina represented the first time I have been to an Italian restaurant without feeling the need to request a side of extra marinara. There was simply enough sauce, and when it comes to me and sauce, enough is kind of a lot.
The menu treads that good, rare line between cheap, homey Italian food and overblown, pretentious Italian cuisine. It is affordable and simple yet inventive and extremely thoughtfully prepared. The closest thing to a critical thought I had during the meal was, “Wow, they sure are giving us a lot of bread.” We felt too full to order dessert, yet we nonetheless struggled through a dense and creamy chocolate and hazelnut gelato that was sent to our table compliments of the owner. Family style indeed.