When Johnston resident Cindy Salvato, a former executive pastry chef who taught at Johnson & Wales University and Boston University, created a tour of Federal Hill that she dubbed Savoring Rhode Island, it started off as a reward for students who had perfect attendance.
These days, she gives three-hour tours of “The Hill” every Saturday at 9 a.m., rain or shine, to anyone who is interested in having fun while getting an education on the food, wine and Italian culture the area is known for.
Located on Atwells Avenue in Providence, “The Hill” has been the center of business for Providence’s Italian population since the late 1800s and early 1900s, when approximately 54,000 Italians immigrated to Rhode Island.
On the tour, Salvato describes various retailers to participants and introduces them to chefs, bakers and ravioli makers, many of whom are from Italy, that own and manage bakeries, butchers and poultry markets, specialty markets and wine stores.
She also gives tips about cooking and how best to use ingredients in the shops, while establishments share samples of their delicacies.
“There are places all over ‘The Hill’ that are just legendary,” Salvato said during a private tour last week. “It’s like another world out here.”
Typically, Salvato begins the tour by inviting guests who register online to meet at DePasquale Square, distinguishable by a fountain located between Venda Ravioli and Scialo Bros. Bakery, two stops on the tour. From there, Salvato and a group of no more than 14 stroll to Caffe Dolce Vita for coffee and cookies.
“It’s a fabulous little boutique hotel,” Salvato said.
Salvato brings participants to Scialo Bros., which was founded by two brothers in 1916. Ironically, it is now owned and operated by two sisters, Lois Ellis and Carol Gaeta.
According to Gaeta, her father Luigi Scialo and her uncle Gaetano Scialo opened the shop, with Luigi taking over sole ownership shortly thereafter. As a married man with three children living in the Conimicut section of Warwick, he happily managed the bakery.
On a stormy day in 1938, Luigi took his two older children to school, leaving his wife and infant daughter behind at home. Sadly, the 1938 hurricane hit and he lost his wife and daughter to the storm.
Years later, he met Gaeta’s mother, Assunta Noviello, and had three daughters, whom he left the bakery to when he passed away in the early 1990s at the age of 103.
“We did not expect to be doing this because we all had other occupations,” Gaeta said. At the time, Gaeta was a medical assistant and her sisters were teachers, including Susan Gaines, who lives in Florida and opted out of being a part of the business.
In terms of food, however, the sisters are one of the few bakeries that make many homemade items, including torrone, cannoli shells and sfogliatelle, a classic Neapolitan pastry with several layers of dough. Locals often refer to it as the pastry that resembles a clamshell, said Salvato.
“Hardly anybody makes them from scratch anymore,” Salvato said. “They kept up the tradition and there are all kinds of beautiful things here.”
Gaeta takes pride in the fact that everything is baked in two brick ovens that were originally built in 1920. One of the ovens needed repairs after a 1994 stove fire, and the other was serviced last year.
While every day is different, they make at least 50 baked goods each day. They can also ship certain items through their online store at scialobakery.com.
“The food we sell makes people feel nostalgic,” Gaeta said. “It’s a tradition to a lot of people.”
Gaeta said she is pleased with the newest addition to the business: cake decorating.
“It is big right now,” she said.
After satisfying her sweet tooth, Salvato heads to Venda Ravioli, which is known as a pasta making company. Not only is their pasta handmade, but they also carry a large selection of Italian cold cuts, various cheeses, prepared foods, classic Italian desserts, plus handmade sausages and pancetta, an Italian bacon.
Then, Salvato navigates across the street to what she calls the “Ravioli Room,” where Josephine Lomartire of Providence and Bianca Pelligrino of Johnston prepare gourmet tortelloni, or larger size tortellini filled with smoked mozzarella, garlic, peppers, spinach and ricotta cheese for Venda. The two women know the filling recipes by memory.
“We are happy when people like the food,” said Lomartire, who learned how to make tortelloni when she lived in Puglia, Italy. She came to America in 1966, while Pelligrino journeyed from Rome to the United States in 1975.
“I like the job,” Lomartire said. “You feel like you are home here. Everybody talks Italian and all the restaurants are Italian.”
Gina Dicicco, who co-owns Tony’s Colonial, a shop established in 1969 that sells Italian groceries, cold cuts, sausage, pesto, antipasto and breadsticks, as well as flatware, feels the same. Dicicco is from Cassino, Italy and runs the store with her husband, Tony, and their daughter, Adrianne.
“We love the people and everything here,” Dicicco said. “We love this kind of work.”
Other Italian restaurants and shops Salvato often brings guests to are Antonelli’s Poultry, Roma Gourmet and Gasparro’s Wines. At Antonelli’s Poultry, established 1853, owners keep live animals in back that come from various farms from throughout the state, such as Stamp Egg Farm in Johnston and Baffoni’s Poultry, also in Johnston. They get eggs and milk from Little Rhody Egg Farm in Foster as well.
“A place like this is important because you need to have some things that are local,” Salvato said. “When people buy their chicken here, they want the feet, the head and all the innards because they can use it all.”
At Roma, Salvato usually educates tour participants about balsamic vinegar and olive oil. The shop has been in operation for 35 years.
“When you buy olive oil, buy it in a dark bottle or in a can because if it’s in a clear bottle, the sun and light break the olive oil down,” she said. “Also, there should be a press date and a sell date on the bottle. If there’s no date, don’t buy it because you don’t know how old it is. A lot of these [sold at Roma] are brand new.”
As for balsamic vinegar, the thicker the better. For the best quality, said Salvato, look for the word “traditionale” on the bottle.
“You’ll want to take it intravenously, it’s so delicious,” she said.
As she struts to the final location of the tour, Gasparro’s, she’s ready to indulge in a different liquid delight. There, they sell 1,200 to 1,500 types of wines and champagne.
Fourth generation owner Mark Gasparro said he enjoys carrying on the family tradition of offering customers wine and champagne, which range in price from $10 a bottle to $5,000.
The location houses a 750-square foot temperature controlled room that holds up to 4,000 bottles. Kept at 55 degrees, the room stores high-end wine and champagne that are hard to find.
“They’re not wines you’d drink on a typical day,” Gasparro said.
Recently, Gasparro was in Verona, Italy, tasting multiple types of Barolo, a red wine, and needed to cleanse his pallet when someone approached him and suggested Spitz, the latest “hot” drink in Europe.
“It’s refreshing, crisp, clean, and very tasty,” he said. “It’s brand new to the country.”
Gasparro said he is thrilled to take part in Salvato’s tours. He welcomes her and her guests to his store with open arms and full goblets.
“Most likely, they are passionate about food and wine, otherwise they wouldn’t be on this tour,” he said. “People are interested about what goes into our product and what we know about our product. Cindy is bringing a crowd that’s very specific. Not only are they interested in the retail, but also the history of Federal Hill and she knows all the ins and outs, all the nooks and crannies, of the Avenue.”
For Salvato, the tour is a tribute to her affection for food and wine, as well as her adoration for Europe.
“If you want to feel like you’re in Europe or outside of America, you come here,” she said. “It’s very lively. Someone once asked me, ‘Do you ever get bored with your tours?’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
Salvato, originally from Boston, has been living in Johnston with her husband for 15 years. She studied at the International Culinary Art Center in New York, then Johnson &Wales, where she earned an associate’s degree before moving to Rhode Island in 1992. To learn more about her and the tour, priced at $50 per person, visit savoringrhodeisland.com.