Where politics is on the menu in Rhode Island

Morales raved about El Ninja, on Broad Street in Providence, while Ruggerio is a regular at Zorba’s Pizza & Pub, on Mineral Spring Avenue in North Providence.

Colorful signage adorns El Ninja restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island. El Ninja is a favorite of state Representative David Morales, a Providence Democrat.Matthew Healey/Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

At El Ninja, I spotted a Rhode Island politician before I’d even ordered an appetizer. As I sat down on the patio, I noticed a familiar face at a nearby table, and sure enough, it was former House Speaker Gordon D. Fox.

The last time I’d quoted Fox was in 2015 when the Providence Democrat emerged from US District Court after a judge had sentenced him to three years in prison for wire fraud, tax evasion, and pocketing a $52,000 bribe. On the courthouse steps, I’d asked him what needed to happen to stop this kind of corruption from happening again.

These days, Fox is in a much better place, working as vice president of operations at Crossroads Rhode Island. And this time around, I had much easier questions for him: What did he think of El Ninja? And what did he recommend from the menu?

Fox talked about how El Ninja was part of an increasingly vibrant stretch of Broad Street, and he offered two recommendations: An El Presidente beer and the churrasco, which the menu describes as a “delicious outside skirt steak cooked on the grill,” topped with chimichurri sauce and served with yucca mash.

Former House Speaker Gordon D. Fox dined at El Ninja restaurant, in Providence, Rhode Island.Edward Fitzpatrick

Morales, who is one of the youngest Latino legislators in the nation at age 23, said his favorite places to eat and talk politics include the Thai Star restaurant on Chalkstone Avenue in Providence, and La Fogata, a food truck stationed on Thurbers Avenue that specializes in tacos.

But Morales said El Ninja’s fusion of Latin American and Japanese flavors catapults the restaurant to the top of his list. And he highly recommended the Geisha Roll, which the menu describes as “shrimp tempura, bacon, mozzarella, maduro (deep fried).”

The Geisha sushi roll at El Ninja in Providence is a favorite of state Representative David Morales, a Providence Democrat.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

My vote goes to the Aloha Roll, which contains spicy tuna and avocado topped with pineapple. And for appetizers, I would lobby for the salted edamame and ropa vieja pastelitos, which are fried dough pastries packed with shredded stewed steak and cheese.

On a Saturday night, El Ninja was buzzing, with couples dressed up for date night and families with children. The restaurant logo is a pint-sized ninja wielding a plantain.

A cartoon ninja holding a plantain welcomes guests inside El Ninja in Providence, Rhode Island.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

The waitress greeted us with a friendly, “Hola!”

At Zorba’s, the waiter greeted me with a friendly, “What can I get you, boss?”

Ruggerio recommended the cheeseburger club sandwich, with lettuce, tomato, and bacon, plus fries.

But my vote goes to the calamari, which came with banana peppers, Kalamata olives, and cherry tomatoes – a favorite dish of Ruggerio’s chief of staff, Jake Bissaillon.

For the record, calamari is the state’s official appetizer, and it enjoys bicameral support, as evidenced by Representative Joseph M. McNamara’s memorable appearance during the 2020 Democratic National Convention, when he cast the state’s electoral votes in the name of “the Calamari Comeback State of Rhode Island.”

Sotirios Katsaras, owner of Zorba’s Pizza & Pub in North Providence, Rhode Island holds a plate of calamari.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

Senate spokesman Greg Pare said Ruggerio often goes to Zorba’s for lunch, dinner, and coffee meetings. When asked if he goes there for political discussions, Pare said, “Are there any other kind of discussions?”

Ruggerio, who served four years in the state House of Representatives before being elected to the Senate in 1984, has broken bread at a lot of locations over the years.

But his favorite restaurants include Camille’s, an Italian restaurant “in the heart of Federal Hill” on Bradford Street in Providence, and LaSalle Bakery, which has two locations in Providence, providing him with good options to meet for coffee.

At Zorba’s, a photo of the State House dome hangs on the wall, and owner Sotirios “Sammy” Katsaras said Ruggerio stops by at least once a week. He said he has known Ruggerio for about 35 years and they are friends. He said other Rhode Island politicians also come there, including North Providence Mayor Charles A. Lombardi and Governor Daniel J. McKee.

A sign in front of Zorba’s Pizza & Pub welcomes guests in North Providence, Rhode Island.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

Katsaras has been a restaurant owner for 45 years, and he used to own the Kitchen Bar, on Providence’s East Side, where customers included former Rhode Island Governor and current US Commerce Secretary Gina M. Raimondo.

Morales said he and Ruggerio disagree on some policy issues, such as raising taxes on the richest 1 percent. But he said they would agree that “Rhode Island has a diverse array of delicious food and culinary selections.”

“From the cuisine we enjoy to the ideology of our local officials,” he said, “it is a diverse selection.”


El Ninja, 1007 Broad St. in Providence, 401-467-2581, elninja.net

Zorba’s Pizza & Pub, 1370 Mineral Spring Ave. in North Providence, 401-353-2100, zorbaspizzanpub.com

Thai Star restaurant, 1008 Chalkstone Ave. in Providence, 401-421-5840, thaistarrestaurant.com

La Fogata, a food truck stationed on Thurbers Avenue in Providence, 401-219-9630, facebook.com/Lafogata.foodtruck/

Camille’s, 71 Bradford St. in Providence, 401-751-4812, camillesonthehill.com

LaSalle Bakery, 993 Smith St. in Providence, 401-831-9563, and 685 Admiral St. in Providence, 401-228-0081, lasallebakery.net

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.

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