Imagine the Roma Cafe in the 1960s with crystal chandeliers, white tablecloths, and happy patrons sipping hefty martinis. The dressed-up crowd nibbles on olives from the relish tray, while waiting on their veal parmesan dinner. It could be an anniversary evening out or maybe a special birthday.
Now imagine that restaurant reborn in 2017. Gone are the heavy draperies on the tall windows. The place is light filled with a comfortable, friendly vibe. In place of a relish tray, you’ll be offered a plate of freshly baked focaccia and house-made giardiniera, along with a jagged chunk of Grana Padano cheese, broken off from a big wheel in the dining room. Guests are dressed casually, sipping an Aperol spritzes or negronis, while perusing the menu. Many have arrived from homes in the nearby West End neighborhood, not waiting for a special occasion. This is the new Roma, recently brought back to life by owner Mike Fraser, along with Guy Streitburger and chef Anders Tallberg.
Housed in the renovated 1880s-era Rines Mansion on Portland’s Congress Street, Roma is an experience rooted in nostalgia for another era and a certain type of comfort cuisine. Even if you didn’t grow up in an Italian household where Sundays meant a big extended family meal, surely a plate of spaghetti and meatballs signals warmth and contentment. “The reason I wanted to do this project is for the memories it triggers,” says Tallberg “I’ve worked in more authentic places, but this is the food I grew up with.” He has fond memories of Italian restaurants near his hometown of Hampden. The chef’s mother is Sicilian, and when he was a child, his godfather taught him to make a simple, quick tomato sauce that is now the restaurant’s marinara. “I think it’s exemplary in its simplicity and freshness,” he says.
Tallberg’s menu is an exercise in old-school Italian food, featuring the classics like tagliatelle Bolognese and veal piccata, as well as some traditional favorites not often found in town. Clams casino is a delicious starter, loaded with compound butter, smoky bacon, pickled peppers, and breadcrumbs. Tallberg offers fried mozzarella, too, just because he finds mozzarella “hard to resist.” His tempting garlic bread is the same one that was a hit at Roustabout, the restaurant he previously co-owned in the East End. It’s thick with butter, raw garlic, lots of lemon, and bright green parsley. The house salad is designed for sharing and brings back pizza house memories for me, but with much better ingredients. It’s a bowl piled high with iceberg lettuce, top-quality salami and provolone, tomatoes, fat pepperoncini, and house-made Italian dressing. The salad is a fine prelude to the entrees, all Italian-American classics, expertly handled by Tallberg. “We tried to hit all the notes with the pasta,” he says. His Bolognese sauce is a two-day project made of long-simmered pork shoulder and pancetta, with white wine and chicken stock, finished with cream and a touch of sage and nutmeg. The tagliatelle is also made in-house. The first dish Tallberg ever taught himself to make when he was just 12 years old is bucatini all’amatriciana, and it’s now a favorite on the Roma menu. His rigatoni alla vodka is wonderfully toothsome, with chewy bits of pancetta and Grana Padano, plus a little spicy kick at the end. It’s a gorgeous shade of pink from the tomato and cream, emulsified with the vodka. The linguine with clams is a winner, too, full of all the good stuff: garlic, lemon, olive oil, parsley, local littleneck clams. Servings are generous enough for most to have leftovers to bring home. Streitburger’s wife, Emily Delois, makes desserts, keeping with the Italian-American theme. The spumoni is a million times better than the one I remember as a child, but the familiar flavors struck a chord. Layers of house-made chocolate, cherry, and pistachio ice creams are garnished with amarena cherries, candied pistachios, and chocolate crumble, a heavenly combination of tastes and textures.
Streitburger, who also manages Bramhall downstairs, has done an excellent job stocking the compact bar. There are just four stools, perfect for enjoying an aperitif before being seated in the dining room. “An all-Italian wine list was natural,” says Streitburger, “heavy on reds and lighter on whites this time of year. We really wanted to show a good representation of regions.” There are several good choices available by the glass, but the emphasis is on bottles, with more options. “Having a bottle of wine on the table really makes a dinner special,” he says. “We can recommend wines that equate to more familiar French wines.” I sampled a luscious glass of the primitivo, a full-bodied and juicy red wine from Puglia, the “heel” of Italy’s boot, similar to a zinfandel. Bartender Kate Marx offers a taste of the staff favorite, Corvina Scaia from the Veneto region, with a rich but not overwhelming spicy finish. The wine list is still evolving and growing, Streitburger tell me, but it seems to be off to a great start.
“The response we’ve gotten since opening (in August) has been amazing,” Tallberg says. “This is just the start, and we’re really happy with the direction we’re going in.”
The Roma | 767 Congress St. | Portland | 207.761.1611 | romaportland.com