I had initially heard of Cafe Nuovo because of the desserts. Later, I would hear other things, but for the most part, people raved about the desserts. After finally going a few times, pretty much everything I heard was confirmed.
Nuovo is a notorious haunt for Waterfire-zombies and businessmen getting blasted. While I didn't witness any zombies on my trips, the business crowd was in full force. Unfortunately for Nuovo, this crowd causes a lot of noise during peak hours that undoubtedly annoy other patrons. It certainly annoyed me. One of the poor wait staff was charged with handling a table-full of them. Judging from the diners, as they got drunker, she got more attractive.
The restaurant's ambiance is very nice. I loved the high-backed chairs. The lighting is romantic. And tables are perfectly dressed. It had a casual trendiness that wasn't overpowering, just... chic. Something about the design hasn't aged well, though. It seems too 1990's modern. Service is beyond fast. Wait staff is a well-oiled machine with few hiccups. They apologized for the long wait and I didn't know what they meant. I had been sitting for no more than three minutes before I was inundated with wait staff. I had heard that the staff is primarily male. I saw a number of women, but they were treated strangely. At times, the men would kind of hijack tables from the women, much to the visible annoyance of the women. Very odd.
The menu is good. I liked the play of certain styles and ingredients, but the success of that play is spotty. Some Asian-influenced dishes, such as the Szechuan Surf & Turf, are so heavy on the salt as to nearly overpower the dish. Prices are odd. The adequate crab cake costs an eye-popping $13, but the filet is a very reasonable $31. I was somewhat disappointed in the selection. There was some grilled pizza that did not belong on the menu. It was tossed on as though paying homage to the city Nuovo calls home. Don't bother. People can get pizza elsewhere. Give me something new. And really, that was the biggest complaint. Nothing new. Food presentation is glorious from beginning to end, but it's covering up food that uses fusion to further hide blasé recipes.
The wine list is very good, but expensive. Some barely adequate vintages carried insane prices. A good example is Opus One, which is everywhere. Most other places carry it in the $200 range. Here, it's nearly $300. They had some affordable wines listed, but not many, and only two bottles go below $30. I've been warned that the wines are aimed at the business crowd, for when you have the expense account card with which to splurge. I agree with this assessment. Moreover, my personal rule of thumb to determine a crap sommelier, whether Opus One is the priciest wine on the list, is just barely overcome with only four bottles more expensive, and by less than $20.
Now to the good stuff, the desserts. Stunning presentation and inventiveness give you art when you expect crème brûlée. And at $9 each, they're an absolute bargain. Baked Alaska? Hooyah! Mousse? Badaboom! I can't recommend the food completely, but the desserts are impossible to not recommend. As for other aspects of the night's conclusion, my cappuccino was the largest I've ever gotten and pretty good. Tea selection is pathetic. They have a mind-boggling five varieties. Sugar comes in the form of a jar of flavored and colored rock candy. Nice touch. And that's a good analogy for all of Nuovo. Food that takes a back seat to style. Not too much of a back seat, but noticeable. Even the desserts, presented wonderfully, are all rather basic in inception. They makes an attempt, but Al Forno still has the best desserts in town. Nuovo succeeds, surely, but more as an exercise in style over substance.
UPDATE 5/22/2009: I have had a number of very positive experiences at Nuovo that do much to change my initial perceptions of the food. The fusion food that's there is still too salty, but the menu overall is richer and less gimmicky. I'll add some photos shortly, but until then, I'm adding half of a star. The reason for going is still to experience the desserts, but dinner definitely won't disappoint.
Cafe Nuovo: ***1/2
Price range for two: $40-$100
One Citizens Plaza
Providence, RI. 02903
Lunch: Monday through Friday 11:30am to 3:00pm
Dinner: Monday through Thursday 5:00pm to 10:30pm
Friday and Saturday 5:00pm to 11:00pm
Open Sundays for Waterfire