From the night Bellini opened its doors, its eager crowd settled into its seats like Al Hirschfeld’s “Algonquin Round Table.” Each evening, Providence’s most recognizable personalities congregate in the restaurant: the newly appointed U.S. Commerce Secretary, local real estate moguls and their lawyers, bread-breaking equity officials and, at the center of it all that, Joe Paolino Jr. holding court and offering hugs. It’s a social networking hub, dressed in mid-century decor that doesn’t remind you as much as puts you right in the middle of Betty Draper’s big night. Everyone buys everyone a tour and if you can’t find a worthy recipient in fifteen minutes flat, hang around long enough and everyone will become close friends.
The backdrop for all this schmoozing is an understated palate – cream-coloured soft furnishings with pops of pink – but it’s all dominated by wooden walls and tables so heavily shelled they gleam like polished marble. . Appearance is everything here: in the space, in the plate, and for the staff who parade in white jackets and black bow ties or – in the case of the management – gracefully weave their way around the dining room in suits Italians fitted to their slender frames and pegged several inches above the ankle.
But the aesthetic perimeter extends outside the doors of the restaurant, which is inside the Hotel Beatrice de Paolino.
A tribute to her mother, who smiles broadly from a mosaic portrait in the lobby, the whole project is imbued with feminine energy. Decor may be understated and elegant, but accessories take center stage: intricate crystal chandeliers, gilded side tables, and jewel-toned velvet seating argue that opulence is best served in small doses. And it’s clear that Cipriani-owned Bellini agrees. Known for its namesake cocktail from the 1940s, the restaurant bottles its own peach puree and the pink-hued juice adds a splash of vibrancy to what is otherwise a deeply traditional menu.
Juxtaposed against highly polished surfaces, the rustic plates affirm the presence of an Italian mother anxious to bring her family together around the table. Sparkling fruit cocktails eventually give way to bottles (and bottles) of Chianti, and while there are some very mixed dishes, pasta is still the essence of that motherly love letter. The homemade pappardelle in creamy tomato sauce ($21) couldn’t be simpler and it’s still perhaps the best dish on the menu, a delicate but throat-filling ode to the countryside. In fact, every pasta dish is worth worshiping and when they arrive – usually as a primo – every little town of people, every minute metropolis, is silent about how long it takes to finish a plate of cacio e pepe ($21) or lasagna bolognese ($26).
As soon as you get used to Bellini’s bucolic side, however, he reverts to a more urban approach. Crudo tastings ($24) are artfully presented in a minimalist form with little more than salt and dignified olive oil. The “dressed lobster” ($30) is even more austere: a small claw with lots of tomato-tinged mayonnaise. But the steak tartare ($21) is like a New Year’s Eve ball: dressed fresh and immersed in more black truffles than a French forest. (Joyful mystery: food is expensive at Bellini, but whoever takes care of the truffles hands them out with abandon. Tagliardi with “Tartufo Nero di Norcia” may be a $28 plate of pasta, but it’s also a week of mushrooms and its smell is fragrant in the air like a perfume.)
The meat and seafood dishes are modest but, as with the diners, elegantly presented. Salmon is served on a lush pea mash with white asparagus ($28) — a composition by Lilly Pulitzer on a plate — while sea bass sits alongside perfectly trimmed artichokes with a sprinkle of capers ($39). These larger plates are nature-wise, and while they don’t elicit the passion of a plate of pasta, they evoke an Italy that’s more Audrey Hepburn than Sophia Loren. Female diners counter the culinary face with an amalgamation of Chanel tweed suits, cozy suede leggings, enough jewelry to mimic chandeliers. The decorative effect in this restaurant — much like the NYC and Coconut Grove outposts — is not embellishment; it is an integral part of the experience of being and seeing the beauty in every corner of the room. If this were forty years ago, you would expect to see someone holding up a cigarette holder as a light in the middle of the dining room. These days? Another M.C cocktail, compliments another Cipriani effort in Beverly Hills.
If the dessert ($14) detours for something more modest, it’s only because the sugar doesn’t need to be dressed up to make its mark. Wedges of tiramisu and scoops of chocolate mousse come out like cake at a kid’s party: covered in cream and promises. (There’s also a vanilla Bellini cake that wears the meringue like a crown, imposing with youthful glee, though there aren’t any children in sight – and no delighted customer seems inclined to bring any. one next time.) Fruit panna cotta may be the ripest of all the offerings, but it’s a bowl of pistachio ice cream that makes its way into the spotlight with simplicity. It adheres to Bellini’s central tenet: the classics never fall out of favor and every historic city has something to celebrate. In fact, it is the mantra that has clearly led to this marriage between hotel and restaurant and which is fully manifested in the slender architectural space between the two: Beatrice’s lobby is adjacent to the (former) wall exterior of the 1887 Stock Exchange building, which houses the restaurant, and in the tower that wraps around it. One foot in tradition, the other in modernity? This is the Cipriani way, from the first Bellini to the final bite.
50 Westminster St., Providence, 331-4050, bellinirestaurant.com.
Open daily for lunch and dinner. Wheelchair accessible. Valet service.
Food Modern Italian.
Capacity A cool hundred.
Atmosphere Jackie Kennedy and Jackie O collide.
Prices Appetizers and shared plates $16 to $30; pasta $21-28; dishes between $26 and $41; dessert $14.
Karen’s Picks Steak tartare, any type of pasta, roast fish. Please note: Meals should not begin until after cocktail hour.