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Why You Need to Eat at this VFW Hall in Cranston, Rhode Island
Patrons go for the polenta, but they stay for the tight-knit sense of community.
12-11-2017
Terrence Doyle

Editor's note: Less than a year after we first visited Mike's Kitchen, the man himself, Mike Lepizzera, passed away at the age of 86. Like all of the customers he served over his 30 years in the kitchen, we feel grateful we were able to meet this local legend and share his food. The restaurant is now run by Mike's niece and her husband, and it still features Mike's famous recipes.


 

MOST OF THE VFW halls sprinkled across America serve as spaces where old friends and compatriots can gather and swap stories over a few pints of cold beer and a game of darts. Tabor-Franchi VFW Post 239 in Cranston, Rhode Island isn’t like most VFW halls.

Mike's Kitchen in Cranston, RI
Mike's Kitchen's unremarkable exterior belies the magic inside.

Sure, the walls at Tabor-Franchi look like the walls of any other VFW hall in America: The banners of our various military branches are tacked up and draped aside manifold plaques and honors and medals of valor. And like any other VFW hall, Tabor-Franchi functions as an open-ended archive to the military service of its membership. Unlike most VFW halls, Tabor-Franchi Post 239 doubles as a restaurant that’s been reviewed by the New York Times.

Mike's Kitchen in Cranston, RI
The decor includes artifacts from members' military service.
Mike's Kitchen in Cranston, RI
I cook from the heart like [my mother] did. I just try to make everyone who eats here happy. Mike Lepizzera, owner of Mike's Kitchen

Mike Lepizzera opened the eponymous Mike’s Kitchen 33 years ago, and despite his advanced age—Mike turned 85 on February 1st—he’s still running the show in the kitchen. Mr. Lepizzera learned to cook from his mother—a former restaurant owner in her own right—and his recipes mimic the no-frills Italian cuisine she served throughout the Depression. The food is as unpretentious as the formica tables it’s served upon. (Mike’s is the kind of place that has a sign above the entrance to the kitchen that reads, “I’ve reached the age where happy hour is taking a nap.” The drop-ceiling tiles are faded beige and the overhead fluorescent light fixtures—unlike the food—are reminiscent of a public school cafeteria.)

Mike's Kitchen in Cranston, RI
The no-frills restaurant interior features fluorescent light fixtures and formica tabletops.

Though Lepizzera’s menu is vast—it spans two 8”x11” pieces of laminated cardstock and a massive dry eraser board—Mike’s Kitchen is best known for its polenta. It’s so good that Johanne Killeen and the late George Germon—co-owners of one of neighboring Providence’s most beloved restaurants, Al Forno, and Mike’s Kitchen regulars—included Mike’s recipe in their 1991 cookbook Cucina Simpatica: Robust Trattoria Cooking from Al Forno. (Cook’s Country test cook Katie Leaird was also inspired by Mike’s polenta.)

From the book:

Mike Lepizzera is the chef of Mike’s Kitchen, a wonderful Italian restaurant in Cranston, Rhode Island. George and I eat at Mike’s every chance we get. In fact, we are there so often we have become part of Mike’s extended family and he part of ours. After enjoying his incredible food, Mike joins us at the table. We exchange recipes, tricks of the trade, and memories of Italy. . . He gave us the recipe for this book. We think it’s the best in the world.

Mike's Kitchen in Cranston, RI
The menu board at Mike's Kitchen.

Aware of Lepizzera’s famous polenta, but curious to find out what beyond the legendary food makes Mike’s Kitchen so special, I headed to Cranston with test kitchen photographer Kevin White to observe the restaurant during a lunch shift (and also to eat my weight in pasta).

“We have people coming from New York, New Hampshire, Vermont [for the polenta],” said Fran Parsons, who doesn’t officially work for Mike’s Kitchen, but who’s been tending bar at Tabor-Franchi Post 239 since it opened in 1982, a year before Lepizzera opened his restaurant. “Mike’s food brought everyone in, and I don’t think that’s going to stop.”

Inspired by Mike's Kitchen

Fluffy Baked Polenta with Red Sauce on Cook's Country TV

Watch our homage to the polenta we tasted at Mike's Kitchen in this television segment from the 10th season of Cook's Country TV.

Along with the quality food it’s dishing up—other favorites include the fried squid and hot peppers, which one diner ebulliently declared “the best damn calamari in the state,” and the stuffed artichokes—Mike’s is known for the loyalty of its employees. Of the half dozen or so servers working the Thursday lunch shift the day I dined there, each had worked at Mike’s for at least nine years, while some had been there for multiple decades. When asked what exactly makes Mike’s such a special place to work, each employee offered similar responses.

Mike's Kitchen in Cranston, RI
Cheryl Badessa cracks a smile as she delivers a couple plates of pasta to some hungry patrons.

“You see the same people, you make a lot of friends, the same customers are coming in all the time,” said Paula Conti, who’s been serving food at Mike’s for about 20 years. “Mike’s recipes are special. It’s food that you can’t get at a lot of other places, like the tripe and the stuffed artichokes. The calamari is the best in the state. It just keeps people coming back all the time.”

“It’s fun, it’s fast, the customers are great,” said Iris Greenstein, a 26-year veteran of Mike’s service staff, and a longtime Cranston resident. “Everybody knows each other.”

“It’s a nice place to work,” said Debbie Romano, who’s been working at Mike’s since the day it opened its doors in 1983. “All the girls are friendly. The food is great, the sauce is great . . . we get the same customers coming in all the time.”

“Not too many people leave unless they get thrown out. It’s wonderful, the people are wonderful . . . we’re all like family,” said Ms. Parsons.

Mike’s patrons echoed the sentiments of his employees.

“It’s just good food, and good people—it’s nothing classy, it’s just good,” said longtime Mike’s Kitchen fan and Cranston resident Carolyn Zompa. “My favorite dish is the tripe. It’s very unusual—people think I’m crazy. And I take a stuffed artichoke home for my husband. Very delicious, it’s like a meal.

“We’ve been coming here for years, since my kids were little. And now they take their kids here. It just keeps going,” continued Ms. Zompa.

Lepizzera himself attributes his success to “good food, good recipes, and loyal customers.” Speaking of those recipes: Lepizzera says he learned everything he knows about cooking from his mother. “I cook from the heart like she did. I just try to make everyone who eats here happy.” It’s safe to say he’s been doing a pretty good job.

Mike's Kitchen in Cranston, RI
Lepizzera manning the cash register at Mike’s Kitchen.

Fair warning: Mike’s Kitchen is cash only, so remember to stop at an ATM before heading over to gorge. Modern technology and Mike’s mix like oil and water.

“We have no computers,” joked our server, Bonnie Brout, who’s worked at Mike’s for nine years. “Most people here wouldn’t know what to do with a computer. Everything is done by hand. Some people get mad because they can’t pay with a card or because we can’t fax them a menu or because they can’t read their check.”

Mike's Kitchen's calamari
Overheard in the dining room: "The best damn calamari in the state."

More fair warning: Expect a wait. Lunch or dinner, Mike’s is almost always packed, and forget trying to get in there on a Friday night—the line often runs out the front door and around the building.

When told there was a writer and a photographer in the building, Ms. Romano quipped, “What, you’re writing a piece and now it’s going to get even crazier in here? I better get some new shoes out of the deal.”

I’m not sure Mike’s Kitchen could get any busier, but I do hope Debbie got her new shoes.

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