Combining Soul Food with what he called “South-Philly” cuisine, Chef Jerry Longo brings his signature fare to Twin River Casino Hotel
By: Riley Keefe
LINCOLN, R.I. – When you walk into Jerry Longo’s Meat-balls and Martinis at Twin River Casino Hotel you’ll be greeted by a painting of the late Sopranos star James Gandolfini, painted by Giovanni DeCunto, whose work is renowned by art lovers in Boston. The mood is set. But your other senses are quickly met by the warmth and glow of this eatery just about an hour’s drive south of Boston, and the smell of red wine vinaigrette and spices, and – of course – meatballs. When asked to work with Twin River Casino Hotel to open another restaurant, Longo assured them it’d be his version of Italian dining. “I’ll do the Italian restau- rant but I want it to be more, I want it to be my experience,” says Longo.
To call Meatballs and Martinis a restaurant would be an understatement, one that lacks the pomp and fanfare found within for customers to enjoy. Passion, entertainment, soul, and family best describe this Italian experience, the latter of which began in Rome, Italy. Longo’s passion for food is rooted in his childhood, when he helped his mother and grand-mother prepare staples of Italian cuisine. “That experience grow-ing up in Rome, Italy as a child, that passion for food at the time [inspired me]. Back then guys didn’t cook…I took it to another level and combined it with ‘Italian American’ and ‘comfort food’, we made do with what we had,” says Longo.
What little they had was the heart of it all, the very essence of cooking. “It’s fresh, it’s the way your grandmother did it when they didn’t have much, they did it with love, it came from the soul. That’s why I call it Italian soul food,” says Longo. Combining Soul Food with what he called “South-Philly” cuisine, Longo created a style of his own and was ready to take it further. It didn’t take long after-Longo opened his restaurant on Federal Hill in Providence, R.I., for people to realize something special had come to their city. The humble, 800-square foot restaurant featured a smaller
menu compared to the one seen today, but it caught the attention of Twin River Casino Hotel, which saw an opportunity to make Meatballs and Martinis into something more. “I didn’t know it was going to take off because it was Philly-style cooking, and we brought it to Providence and they just loved it. Then I got this great opportunity to work with Twin River…and we decided to put the powers together and see where it went,” says Longo. There’s beauty in simplicity, and Longo has stuck by this philosophy since day one, even after joining Twin River. His signature Meatball Salad honors his Italian heritage while offering a chance to share what he loved most growing up: family-style dining. “He captured that from his heritage, from his youth when he grew up eating that way, and it brings back the memory to all of us to eat that because we all ate in that style,” says Phil Juliano, executive vice president and CMO of Twin River Worldwide Holdings Inc. A visit to Jerry Longo’s Meatballs and Martinis wouldn’t be complete without a Ciao! from celebrities like former New England Patriots Tight End Rob Gronkowski and team owner Robert Kraft. These are just two of the hundreds of athletes, movie stars, and musicians that Longo calls regulars. But one sticks out from them all. “There’s quite a few, but I guess the ultimate person would be Richard Jenkins. He stumbled upon my restaurant in Providence, it was just before he filmed, Eat, Pray, Love with Julia Roberts. He was on Oprah for Eat, Pray, Love and she asked ‘OK, Richard where do you eat?’ and he says ‘Well, when I want to get a great Italian meal I go to this little spot in Providence called Longo’s. It’s like going to Italy but only better.’” Longo was so taken aback by this comment that below the Spaghetti and Meatballs on his menu, it reads “Richard Jenkins’ Favorite.” Other famous friends include the late Toy Story star Don Rickles, who celebrated his 80th birthday with Longo and friends.
“He could have picked any place in the world to celebrate his birthday, but he flew into Providence and wanted to share it with me and that was a great feeling. God rest his soul,” says Longo. With his new location underway, Longo is anticipating more visits from friends, regardless of celebrity status. But this recent opening is under special circumstances as Covid-19 has forever changed how we go about our day. “It has been trying, it’s been difficult but by the same token we have gone through all the stages in Rhode Island like the stages of the casinos and restaurants in Massachusetts, the same thing, and we’ll do social distancing, we’ll have the masks, we’ll have the allowance that’s allowed,” says Juliano, whose optimistic attitude has lead the way toward making Longo’s dream, or in this case, experience, a reality. Meatballs and Martinis combines the hospitality of your favorite restaurant with the social atmosphere found at a swanky club in Manhattan. But at the end of the day it’s the comfort and nostalgia found in favorite Italian classics that Longo shares with customers and friends alike. “That’s where that saying comes from, you know, the taste of great memories: it brings you back. It hits that feeling of, ‘Oh, I haven’t had this since I was a child’. That’s the experience we try to create and capture at the end of the day.”
Photo credit Longo Restaurant