Sunday, July 13th 2008, 4:00 AM

Some cities are worth visiting just for their outstanding restaurants, and Providence, R.I., certainly fits into that category.

For years I used to pass through Providence on Interstate 95, on the way to Boston or Maine, admiring the magnificent dome of the State House building and making a mental note to stop sometime. I realized that Providence had other attractions only when the son of a neighbor told me he was studying to be a chef at Johnson & Wales University's famed culinary program.

Hmm. Culinary school = great chefs. Great chefs = great restaurants. Eureka! I was on my way.

Providence's fame as a town with delectable restaurants comes mainly from three categories: Italian restaurants, steakhouses and seafood emporiums.

The best Italian restaurants are in the Federal Hill area, which despite its name is the city's Little Italy.

One of the most venerable and popular in the district is Cassarino's, which provides a memorable dining experience from the standpoints of ambience, cuisine and service. I'm partial to fettuccine Alfredo, which is my measuring stick for a good Italian eatery, and theirs was among the best I've ever tasted.

The city's proximity to New England's famed fishing banks would explain Providence's preponderance of seafood restaurants. Among seafood specialists, one of the most recognized is the large and brassy Hemenway's, in the middle of the downtown business district. This seafood grill and oyster bar is crowded and noisy, but its clam chowder just has to be tasted.

Chef John Elkhay, a Johnson & Wales graduate, holds sway at the XO Steakhouse, where the savory Black Angus beef can come with Asian touches. Elkay also owns Rick's Roadhouse, in the city's former jewelry district, which re-creates the barbecue restaurants of the West's famed Route 66.

Restaurants aren't the only attraction in Providence, where art, history and design buffs also have plenty to digest. Other sites a visitor will want to see, if only to walk off the calories, are the John Brown House, historic home of the pioneer sea trader who founded Brown University; the RISD Museum, operated by the Rhode Island School of Interior Design and one of the country's premier institutions for the decorative arts, and the First Baptist Church, which really was the first Baptist church in America, founded by Roger Williams, the father of the city. And the Rhode Island State House offers where you can see that dome from the inside as well as the outside.

Just a short drive from downtown is the Roger Williams Park Zoo, one of the country's finest, and the Johnson & Wales Culinary Archives and Museum, which has a special exhibit on the history of diners in American culture. Even more well-known are the Ivy League's Brown University, and the Jesuit Providence College, the latter justly famous for its Big East basketball tradition.

Those visiting Providence in the summer will want to see the city's spectacular Waterfire event, in which more than 100 bonfires light the city's three downtown rivers, complete with New Age music, gondolas and Thai boat rides. There will be Waterfire lightings on July 19 and Aug. 2, 16 and 30 - all Saturdays.

Also on tap up until July 19 are the city's Restaurant Weeks, in which dozens of restaurants offer a fixed price menu costing $12.95 per person at lunch and $29.95 at dinner.

For information on visiting this city, less than three hours from New York City, contact the Providence Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau at 1-800-233-1636 or visit