PROVIDENCE, R.I. - There's a lot of history in this little state.

A lot of good eating, too. And a lot of great art.

In fact, Rhode Island seemed bigger than I expected, packed with delights for the visitor.

With only a couple of days to explore, I decided to concentrate all of my attention on Providence, leaving the mansions and yachts of Newport and the beaches of Block Island for another visit. I didn't regret my decision for even a minute.

The Rhode Island capital, which celebrates its 375th anniversary this year, was cool - but, alas, only figuratively.

My visit encompassed one of the hottest days ever recorded during the city's 375 years, with the thermometer hitting 101 degrees. But the trip also coincided with Restaurant Week, a very big deal indeed in a town ranked as the third-best restaurant destination in the United States by Travel + Leisure magazine. (San Francisco and New Orleans were Nos. 1 and 2.) Restaurant Week features prix fixe lunch and dinner meals highlighting house specialties at some of the best city restaurants.

The culinary reputation of Providence rests in large part on the large shoulders of the Federal Hill neighborhood, a Little Italy that's actually bigger than the one in New York. With more than 100 restaurants, bakeries and delis, Federal Hill attracts foodies and gourmets from all over the world.

Even Frank Sinatra made a point of eating on Federal Hill. How could he not?

I visited Angelo's Civita Farnese restaurant, family-owned since 1924 and a Federal Hill landmark. The restaurant offers free parking, which is nothing to sneeze at in this crowded, urban neighborhood. Another good option for visitors is to take the city trolley system or make the short walk from downtown - when the temperature is not 101 degrees.

I had Emilio's Special: a deceivingly simple dish of penne pasta with broccoli and black olives in olive oil.

Oh, my. Oh, my.

My dining companion went for the veal peppers - some of the best veal I've tasted. (He shared only a forkful, and I can't blame him.)

Interestingly, my house red wine was served in what looked like a small parfait glass.

"It's a tradition here with the house wine," the waitress explained. "Would you like a wineglass instead?"

No, no, no! After all, when in Little Italy . . .

For seafood, we tried Hemenway's, a popular local restaurant adjacent to the Providence River with a great view of the city skyline. But my meal required most of my attention - New England clam chowder followed by a succulent seafood broil of scallops and shrimp, topped off by Hemenway's white chocolate mousse.

Oh, my! once more.

For a taste of something a bit more nouveau, we lunched at Local 121, which features "locally harvested food and drink."

We enjoyed a good local craft beer. It complemented a fantastic gazpacholike summer vegetable potage that hit the spot on a hot day, as did the strawberry cheesecake ice cream made on the premises by pastry chef Erin Stark.

I was barely able to touch the surface of culinary Providence, but eating wasn't the only thing on my itinerary - despite the bathroom scale's evidence otherwise.

To get a feel for what the town had to offer, I took a ride with Trolley Tours of Providence. Owner Jack Keefe drove and narrated, leavening his broad knowledge of Providence history with a big dose of New England-style deadpan humor.

"My father drove a trolley, too," he announced as we started up.

"I hope I die like he did, peacefully, in my sleep - not like the screaming passengers on his trolley."

The first settlement in Rhode Island was founded by Roger Williams on land purchased from the Narragansett Indians. Williams was a firm believer in religious and political freedom - which perhaps explains why the colony he was granted by King Charles II was so tiny.

Today, the (appropriately tiny) Roger Williams National Memorial, a 41 ¤2-acre park and visitors center at the site of the first settlement, commemorates Williams' vision and tells the story of the founding of the state.

Nearby, the Rhode Island Historical Society maintains the John Brown House, a mansion built in 1788 by a wealthy merchant and sometime slave trader. (He was not related to the famous 19th-century abolitionist John Brown.)

At the site, visitors can view some of the opulence available to the 18th-century Providence elite and learn about some of the horrors of the slave trade.

Providence was deeply enmeshed in the slave trade until - and even beyond - the time it was outlawed in the colony in 1774. Just as Ohio is supposedly riddled with (mostly imaginary) tunnels that abolitionists used to smuggle slaves out of the South, Providence contains mythical tunnels, but these were used by recalcitrant slave holders to smuggle slaves in.

Today, Providence is known as an arts center, thanks in large part to the Rhode Island School of Design, which we can thank for alumni such as Academy Award-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson (JFK, The Aviator) and Seth McFarland, creator of Family Guy. (Art comes in many forms, does it not?)

For visitors, the RISD Museum of Art is a real eye-opener, so to speak. I'm not sure why it doesn't get the attention afforded other institutions, but it's a truly top-notch museum with a fine permanent collection representing most eras and cultures (including a good representation of 19th-century impressionism). Visitors will also find engaging displays of student works and imaginative programming.

Providence was also the birthplace of WaterFire, the torch-lighted river-sculpture celebration created by artist Barnaby Evans. The event has found its way to several other cities, including Columbus. But Providence has the original, and each year hosts several WaterFire events, which become downtown-wide festivals of music, food and art.

But there's no need to wait for WaterFire. Providence is hot enough to be worth a visit anytime.