Address: 170 Randall St, Cranston, RI 02920
Telephone: (401) 946-5320
“You must try Mike’s.” I’ve heard many a time from Providence locals. “Especially the polenta”. But I don’t have the luxury of a car in Providence, and the buses don’t run conveniently to that part of town. So I’m thankful that today my friend will be doing the short 15 minute drive to Mike’s.
Mike’s isn’t like most eateries. It opens from 5-8pm. It’s been around for 30 years, and many of the original servers are still around. It looks like a mess hall. And it’s located in a squat Veteran of Foreign Wars (VFW) building. But the polenta’s the main draw. The NYTimes stopped over in 1997:
Johanne Killeen and George Germon, the owners of the acclaimed restaurant Al Forno in Providence, often dine at Mike’s Kitchen and have included his polenta recipe, which they call the best the world, in their cookbook, ”Cucina Simpatica” (HarperCollins, 1991).
Mr. Lepizzera’s cooking is such a draw that on Fridays, the busiest night, a line stretches outside the building as people wait for a table. The restaurant, which occupies most of the post, seats 125.
If not for the Formica-topped tables with plastic baskets of scali bread and margarine, the large, rectangular room would seem like any other V.F.W. hall. The wood-paneled walls are hung with flags, medals and sepia photos of young men in uniform.
But the diners are not just veterans. They are mayors and lawyers (paper napkins tucked securely under their chins and over their ties), young couples and retirees. Not to mention Mr. Lepizzera himself, who sits down every afternoon for a family-style lunch with his staff at a round table in the middle of the dining room. The waitresses, most of whom have worked at Mike’s since the restaurant opened 14 years ago, take turns hopping up to attend to customers.
Here’s the recipe for the famous polenta (from epicurious):
1/4 cup virgin olive oil1/2 lb unsalted butter2 Tbs chopped garlic2 cups chicken stock1 1/2 quarts half & half1 1/2 -2 tsp kosher salt12 turns of pepper grinder1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes2 cups cornmealpinch sugar1 1/2-2 cups freshly grated Pecorino Romano
1. Heat oil and butter in a large, heavy stockpot. Add the garlic and saute over low heat until it is golden.
2. Add the stock, half & half, 2 1/2 cups of water, salt, and black and red peppers, and stir to combine. Raise the heat and bring to a boil.
3. Very slowly, add the cornmeal, stirring constantly. Lower the heat to maintain a gentle boil. After all the cornmeal has been added, continue to stir until it is thick and creamy, about 20 minutes.
4. Off the heat, stir in the sugar and Romano. Serve right away with the short ribs recipe. Also great accompaniment to grilled sausage.
We arrive in the chilly November night.
A motley crowd of locals, and long-serving servers.
No frills table layout. Plasticky brown table covering.
Peppers and oil.
Fried Calamari (4.5/5)
The famous Mike’s Polenta (4.5/5)
Red sauce is the order of the day, covering a polenta cake. I was expecting a more liquid polenta, but this was quite delicious.
Chicken Parm (3.5/5)
More red sauce.
I love spumoni. It is a tricolor icecream with candied fruit bits (in this case, cherry). This brought me back to Chicago (Avec serves a great version of the spumoni), and reminded me a bit of the rainbow milk swirl ice creams I had in my childhood.
At Mike’s, I was reminded of 80s Chinese restaurants in Singapore, like the Teochew place Por Kee Eating House (my first review on this blog, sadly standards have dropped slightly when I returned this year). Both have servers who have been there for multiple decades, a motley crew of diners (young couples, local politicians, locals), old fashioned decor, large plates designed for sharing. Both seem to be neighbourhood institutions. For no-frills self-styled-“peasant” Italian food in Providence, look no further than Mike’s.