A Roma Rave

Caffe Roma's attentive service and perfectly-seasoned dishes brighten up the northwest side

Amidst the garish neon lights of the fast-food and chain joints along Ina Road is the welcoming sign of the Roma Caffe. There's a sense of comfort in the Roma's sign: a sense of good things to come.

John and I stopped in on a Friday night after a long, hard work week. The crowd was a mixed bag of older folks, young families, a few couples and small groups of others. I wouldn't call the place crowded, but there certainly were enough tables filled to keep the staff busy.

A friendly, young hostess showed us to a table in the back of what appeared to be a newly renovated dining room; the paint looked fresh, and there weren't many pictures and such hanging on the walls.

There are several dining rooms at Roma. The first is a tiny area just off the foyer; it has a bar but no bartender. The second room is much larger and is subdivided into a couple of areas with elevated booths along one wall. The third dining area is somewhat hidden and was empty on both visits. The colors are pinks and off-whites with drawings of faux stonewalls and vine-trimmed arches--very Mediterranean. It's all very pretty, but a bit too brightly lit. A dimming of the lights would add a little romance.

The menu offered up many tempting choices. Veal, chicken and seafood can be prepared in any number of tasty ways. Fresh pastas with all the usual sauces--meat, meatless, marinara and garlic and oil--also can be had. All dinners come with a choice of soup of the day, the minestrone or a dinner salad. There is a serviceable wine list, but the Roma was offering a wine special that night--a bottle of the featured wine sat on the table. We ordered the Sangiovese ($15).

The waitress informed us that Chef Gino was not in the kitchen that night. I thought that was a nice touch, although I wondered if that would make a difference (it didn't). I ordered my good old reliable--ravioli with meat sauce ($9.50)--and John went with the manicotti ($10.95), which is served with the meatless sugo. We both went for the salad as a starter.

In no time at all, our salads arrived with the dressing on the side, another really nice touch. That way, you can have your salad as you like it. I'm pretty fussy when it comes to salad dressing, especially Italian, but Roma's dressing was practically perfect: a nice blend of oil, wine vinegar and spices in which no one flavor dominated.

Our entrées were also delish. John's manicotti was two huge sheets of homemade pasta rolled around a pleasant, mildly seasoned cheese stuffing. The sauce was excellent--again, not overly seasoned, just a nice balance of tomato sauce and spices. He also thought the side of meatballs ($3.75) were great; so did I.

My ravioli, eight pillows of pasta filled with ricotta, were covered with a thick, dark, meaty sauce. Chef Gino (or the chef taking his place that night) displays a fine and experienced hand with seasoning, as the ingredients in the meat sauce, like the sugo, were combined into a mellow blend.

Our second visit was a bit of a celebration. Our daughter, Riene, was home for a wedding, so we mixed business with pleasure.

We started out with an antipasto plate ($8.25), an order of fried calamari ($7.25) and a nice bottle of Chianti ($22). The calamari arrived with two dipping sauces--ranch dressing and spaghetti sauce. Dusted with what were certainly homemade breadcrumbs, the calamari was cooked to perfection. The breading was light and (I know I'm repeating myself) perfectly seasoned.

The antipasto was a huge platter of greens, cheeses, olives, meats, gardeneria and pepperocini. The waitress brought extra dressing, just in case. Everything was fresh and tasty, and the size meant it could've made it a nice meal unto itself. John and I skipped the salads that came with the meal. Riene had hers, and although she ate almost all of it, she thought the blue cheese dressing was a bit bland.

Soon after--but not too soon--our entrées were served. Riene had ordered the veal piccata ($17.50), John went with the lasagna ($11.50), and I picked an old family favorite, the gnocchi alla romana ($12.50).

Riene's veal was a healthy serving of tender, thinly sliced meat, but it suffered from a tad too much garlic and not quite enough butter. This was perhaps the only slip in seasoning found in anything we had at Roma.

John's lasagna was a huge serving of layers of tender homemade pasta, several cheeses and sauce baked piping hot and totally delicious. My gnocchi were also baked under a rich layer of mozzarella and topped with the meatless sugo. The knuckle-sized puffs of potato dumplings (a misnomer if there ever was one--this is pasta, after all) were very good, although not quite like Nana used to make. I might've liked them baked a tad longer.

Service on both nights was warm, friendly and full of little touches that showed the servers care about their work. Things like bringing two dipping sauces, adding a few extra sides of dressing and letting us know about the chef's absence may not seem like a lot, but they are.

The only suggestion I'd make in this area is the wine service. On our first visit, our server took the bottle off the table, opened it elsewhere and placed it on the table without the proverbial test pour. On the second night, while the server did go through the motions, she seemed a bit uncomfortable with the whole routine. Granted, the Roma Caffe is more of a family spot that a fine dining room, but wine is a big part of the Italian food experience, and a few lessons in the art of the pour would go a long way.

Desserts on both visits were outstanding. On night one, we split a cannoli ($3.25). The serving was a good-sized shell filled with an ever-so-slightly sweetened ricotta mixture. The drizzle of chocolate added a nice finishing touch. Night two, we shared the tiramisu ($4.25). Not too sweet, with an undertone of hazelnut liquor and a kiss of chocolate, this was some of the best tiramisu I've ever had.

For those folks living on the northwest side who are looking for good, homemade Italian food, I'd highly recommend a visit to the Roma Caffe. And while it might be a bit of a drive from anywhere else in town, I think you'll find the drive worth it. Buon Appetito!

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