BY MADELEINE LEE

Michelle Politano says that she’s always been a chef at heart. After working years in the travel industry she was laid off when COVID hit, but it felt like a sign that it was finally time to prioritize her passion for cooking. Seizing the opportunity, Politano sold her house and used the proceeds to invest in Pianta Vegan Restaurant.

Opening April 1st, Pianta Vegan Restaurant will operate out of a ghost kitchen in downtown Providence and will offer grab and go takeout. 

Politano is no stranger to cooking, “I’ve always cooked on the side [of my other jobs]. I catered all the events at all the jobs I’ve had. I ran friendsgiving and thanksgiving, catered weddings, and did meal prep for my colleagues but it was never my day job… It’s really scary but I believe in everything that I do so that’s how it happened. It was like a blessing in disguise and I said, ‘Okay, this is going to be my career now.’ The main reason I even liked those travel jobs was because it allowed me to travel the world and try new food! I feel really grateful for my last job and the experiences it brought me.” 

Chef Politano’s menu features nut free, gluten free, and soy free options. She believes that there is truly something for everyone. In addition to her delicious menu full of bowls, pasta, soups, sides and desserts, Pianta Vegan Restaurant will offer family meals such as the Italian Dinner for Two. 

She described her food-centered travels, expressing that what stuck with her most were the culinary tours and meaningful conversations with chefs, “There isn’t a specific cuisine that has affected me because I love all of them so much. What has affected me is the conversations with different chef’s I have had all over the world.”

Politano continued, “I was in Rome and I went to this little pizza shop with this man named Frankie who didn’t speak English but we still were able to communicate and talk for hours, drinking wine and talking about Frankie’s journey. It was an incredible story. His passion and the way he feels about his pizza, everything had such intention and such meaning, it connected directly with his family and his heart.” 

Another chef whose passion stuck with Politano? Chef Eyal from Gingerbread Restaurant in Costa Rica. 

“He is just one of the best chefs of all time. The sear, the crunch on something, again everything has so much intention. He took us in like family,” Politano said.

Frankie and Eyal couldn’t be more different, but both of them have this passion that shows in everything they make and Chef Politano recognizes that inside herself. She said, “I feel that inside of me so when I recognized these connections with people that have completely different lifestyles, languages and walks of life but share this level of caring and putting so much passion and heart into everything, it really speaks to you on a deeper level.”

In addition to her travels, Chef Politano draws her inspiration from her Italian heritage and the power of plants. She says that as a chef, plant based cooking gives her a deeper connection with food. “I was just so astounded by what you can make out of plants. It really blew my mind. It forces you into that critical thinking and keeps my mind stimulated especially coming from my corporate background, it really keeps the gears turning all the time. There’s a challenge to it but it’s also so fun. I love that because that’s kind of my bread and butter.”

Chef Politano described a kitchen mistake that turned into a happy accident and also the inspiration for one of Pianta Vegan Restaurant’s most highly anticipated dishes: 

“I was making cauliflower mash and over-whipped it because I used a blender instead of a hand mixer. It was a mistake how it happened, and this was months ago, but I realized the over-whipped cauliflower reminded me of alfredo sauce. I totally got rid of the idea of making mashed cauliflower and turned it into pasta. It sticks to the pasta, it’s creamy, cheesy and garlicky. That was my ‘aha’ lightbulb moment. I realized you can transform things in ways you never would have imagined. When I thought about what kind of menu I wanted, I knew it had to be transforming plants into something spectacular. That’s really my motivation for it. I find it very exciting to do that.”

Chef Politano comes from a very traditional Italian family. The food she grew up on was outstanding, but not exactly suitable for vegans. She really wanted to curate a menu that featured traditional dishes that are reinvented but still familiar and nostalgic to people who grew up with them. “What I want to do with my restaurant is create these really amazing versions of things that are somewhat familiar; like a Caesar salad or a fettuccine Alfredo and make people go, ‘Holy crap this is vegan.’” 

Politano continued, “I want everyone to give it a shot. It’s good, I know it’s good, and trust me, if anyone has the case study to back it up it’s my traditional Italian family that eats the spaghetti and meatballs every Sunday for dinner and if I’m feeding it to them and they’re saying, ‘Wow this is actually really good,’ that’s how I know.” 

Chef Politano says that veganizing familiar traditional dishes and pushing the boundaries of what veganism looks like allows her creativity to thrive. She loves to change people’s perspectives.

Pianta Vegan Restaurant will do just that. Her menu features everything from  broccoli “cheddar” soup to caramel banana bread pudding to a caesar salad complete with croutons and a caper caesar dressing. Plus, she offers the creamy cauliflower Alfredo that started it all. Chef Politano’s favorite off her menu? The Calabrian “sausage” pasta. 

She said, “My Italian roots are from Calabria which is the spiciest region in all of Italy… I get this chili paste from this amazing company I buy directly from and it’s a delicious dish.” 

The pasta is finished off with crispy garlic chips. Chef Politano’s attention to detail with garnishes elevates her dishes. She wants every bite to be an explosion of texture and flavor. “You know when you try to save the best bite for last? I want every bite to be that bite.”

Calabrian Sausage Pasta

The most recent addition to the menu is the beet and pistachio bowl.

Politano said, “It’s quinoa brightened up with some orange, some arugula for that peppery effect, a vegan whipped goat cheese, dried black cherries, roasted garlic beets and toasted pistachio crumble on top. It’s like a bowl of warmth.”

Additionally her cookie nut trio featuring a walnut cookie, pistachio cookie and lemon almond cookie are all gluten free and reminiscent of the Italian cookies she enjoyed as a child.  

Alongside her conscious vegan food, Chef Politano always strives to produce minimal food waste in her kitchen. She said, “I’ll use the leftover oil in the bottom of a bottle to flavor hommus. I use the stalks of the cauliflower, I don’t peel my vegetables, I use extra parts for garnishes or to make stocks. Nothing is wasted. It saves money and is good for the environment.”

After coming to Providence, Politano was overwhelmed with love and support from other local business owners who welcomed her with open arms and a willingness to be her mentor. She is not threatened by the other vegan restaurants in town but rather inspired. She views it as an opportunity to build connections and share the love.

“Every chef is different and has their own unique flare. Food is so great because it’s fun and exciting to try other chef’s creations. That sense of community is so unique especially coming out of the corporate world which is so cutthroat,” she said.

Chef Politano has dreams of opening a brick and mortar down the line but for now she’s ensured that every dish is easily transportable and suitable for takeout. “I want to create the same atmosphere I grew up with. When I brought home a friend for dinner, my family was so welcoming. I want to create that for everyone, that sense of community.”

 Excited and ready to be a part of the restaurant scene in Providence, Chef Politano has already sought out feedback on her menu from the local vegan community in addition to her family. Pianta Vegan Restaurant opens on April 1st! 

“My personal food journey is my own, but it’s so rewarding to change someone’s perspective on something.” 

You can learn more about Chef Politano and Pianta Vegan Restaurant on Instagram.

Madeleine Lee is an environmental studies major with a passion for social justice and food!! She has been vegan for over one year and shares her recipes and “foodventures” on her Instagram @foodiesontherhode. Madeleine loves animals, matcha, and writing! She is currently in Maine for school but Providence, Rhode Island is her home! She loves the vegan community in Providence and all of the incredible vegan spots the city has to offer.