People always say they’re going to dinner on Federal Hill. They forget that Federal Hill is a neighborhood, not a specific destination that can be plugged into a GPS or reviewed on Yelp. I can’t help but imagine starry-eyed Brown freshmen rolling onto Atwells Avenue for the first time with their befuddled parents and having no clue how to proceed amongst the mobsters, valet parkers, and couples on date night.
Here’s an idea to help us all make good of that next empty resolution to explore Federal Hill: Zooma. It satisfies the Italian requirement—because while Federal Hill is a synecdoche for Italian food, the neighborhood is rife with bakeries and Chinese restaurants—and is swanky enough to have in your back pocket as an option for Family Weekend or wooing potential romantic partners.
Its menu follows the format that must’ve been agreed upon at a clandestine meeting of Italian Restaurants of America: expansive, overwhelming, and with tons of categories that are all listed in Italian. Insalate, zuppa, antipasti, pizza, pasta, carne, pesce. Apparently we are not meant to order one thing from each category, but that doesn’t mean the temptation isn’t there. Among the usual appetizer suspects (pasta e fagioli soup, Caesar salad) are a decent beef carpaccio and fried balls of fresh mozzarella that are kind of like the mozz sticks from Jo’s, except these have housemade marinara and tangy balsamic glaze. San Daniele Prosciutto and fried eggplant round out the mix.
Moving on to the bigger plates, pizzas are made with a special flour that has its own name—Caputo “00;” I have no clue what the numbers denote—and baked in an 800-degree wood-fired oven. And while there are plenty of nice-looking standbys like chicken piccata, veal parm, and grilled swordfish with lemon butter and capers, ranging from $21-38, I’ve been privy to exactly zero of them. This is because the pasta assortment is expansive, overwhelming, and $10 cheaper. Cheers all around!
After all, when you walk into a restaurant and the first thing you see is a chef lovingly shaping orecchiette (side note: it took me four attempts to spell that correctly), is there really even a choice? At dinner last weekend, all eight of us felt firmly that there wasn’t. Having tried most of the thirteen pastas, I’m here to report that the ravioli filled with lobster and mascarpone, swimming in garlic and dry vermouth, is not worth its $26 price tag. They, along with the sacchettini filled with mushrooms, could’ve been fabulously dumplingish were they not plagued by wads of chewy dough. The gnocchi, on the other hand, are the pillowiest and lowest-effort pasta you ever will taste. Goat cheese-filled red wine ravioli never would’ve occurred to you before, but now you won’t be able to get your mind off them. And the orecchiette from earlier makes an appearance with pancetta, peas, and a creamy Pecorino Romano-driven sauce. You will want a vat.
Less charming is the décor: if you are one for whom ambiance is inextricably tied to a meal’s value, you will be horribly, horribly disappointed. The chairs look like they came from Lilly Pulitzer, the art from a nail salon, and the accents from the bedroom of a 14-year-old Mad Men addict. On the bright side, this perfectly suits it to outings with parents: it’s like an ill-conceived Pier 1 attempt at hip. This is to say nothing of the service, which is friendly and gets the job done. Sure, the reliable Italian restaurants in Italy probably don’t have expansive dining rooms and hot pink chairs, but this is Providence, and Zooma’s plenty reliable enough for all your Federal Hill jaunts.
High: PASTA PASTA PASTA. Red wine, goat cheese, brown butter, citrus, pasta. Peas, pancetta, cream, pasta. Duuuuuude. Carbs.
Low: Hot pink furnishings? The occasional chewy pasta chunk?
Bottom line: Nope, it’s not the best restaurant in Providence, but for those times when you’ve just gotta have the Federal Hill Experience—or really want stuffed pasta—Zooma fits the bill.