Walking past Ristorante Roma, one might summon up faded memories of family-run trattorie on Rome’s back streets, set with starched white tablecloths and sturdy dishes, decorated with photographs of local monuments, where in the corner sits a swarthy man shoving spaghetti into his mouth with insouciant abandon and everything is immersed in the intoxicating aroma of tomato and garlic, grilled vegetables in olive oil and roasted herbed meats. These places used to be the staple of every neighborhood. They prospered because they promised honest, unpretentious and rewarding meals that one could only hope to recreate in the home kitchen.Unfortunately today in Italy it is ever easier to find meals prepared with little pride or connection to the country’s culinary patrimony, and that was what occurred to me at the Ristorante Roma.
It has the look of authenticity. It is tucked unprepossessingly mid-block between other independent businesses in the rain shadow of neo-Gothic First Presbyterian church steeple. Its name is stenciled on its large glass windows, which flood the dining room with natural light and catch the eyes of passersby. Stepping inside, the languid warmth of vintage opera or romantic Neapolitan songs is enough to set a relaxed mood. A friendly server with a notable Italian accent greets you and you are transported. Until you notice what is missing: the telltale aroma of an Italian kitchen at work.
The bread was the second sign the experience would be unpromising. Although it arrived warm, it was of a mass produced quality. Furthermore, it was sour dough, not the best accompaniment to tomato-based dishes, and a lazy choice given the outstanding artisanal bakeries in town.
Lastly, the double-sized portions are a clue that the restaurant stands for quantity, not quality. It is difficult for me to fathom anyone getting past the pasta dishes to get to a second course, let alone dessert.
Roma has proclaimed in the past that it prepares dishes with foods “imported from Italy.” Which begs the question: What is so special about that? Twenty years ago, implying that cans of Marzano tomatoes and haunches of prosciutto ham stocked the pantry might have been a differentiator. Today, the bar is set higher and it is set at “locally sourced” ingredients.
Aiming for the latter position might result in fresher tasting food. Here again, Roma takes the easy route. An insipid, thin and flavorless tomato sauce is the base for what tops many of the pasta dishes, to which cream might be added when called for by a recipe. I could not detect any fresh herbs, savory fat or other seasoning in the several dishes sampled. Fat clumps of uninspired sausage and rubbery mushrooms, overcooked mussels and less than premium parmigiano cheese result in an ersatz experience. A vegetable antipasto arrives with canned-tasting mushrooms and peppers and papery eggplant slices. The pappardelle, fettucine and tagliatelle pasta are cited as “fresh” on the menu but that doesn’t mean “made on premises” and therefore begs another question: What is the definition of “fresh”? I’ve had lighter pasta dry and out of a wrapper. The minestrone, which should never be watery, is just that. Chicken Scaloppine were passable, but the flour coating a little thick. More importantly, it was missing the counterpoint of rich butter and tangy lemon that normally makes this utterly simple dish so popular. A Panna Cotta billed as “infused with vanilla and Gran Marnier” instead is bland and arrives with a sugary chocolate sauce that smacks of Hershey’s.
Not every new Italian restaurant has to strive for the heights, nor is slavish imitation of Italian dishes a creative end goal. Justa Pasta, for example, accomplishes a good deal at a fair price without taking short cuts with ingredients. Other area Italian restaurants take Northwest ingredients and treat them the way Italians would, that is, to cook them in a way that brings out their natural flavors with a maximum of inspiration within a minimum of fuss. Roma seems a restaurant out of time, one that might have stood out in a Portland era when people traveled less, and demanded far less quality and authenticity in their food.
Here’s a pet peeve I would like to see corrected in more than one local Italian eatery: incorrect spelling of dishes and ingredients. Maybe the intent was to authentically recreate a tourist menu after all. The result for me was that I wondered just how much respect the owner has for the culture that produced the dishes he serves.
My impression is that the owner, despite European origins and reputedly years cooking in Italy, lacks a passion for food. Roma’s mission might not be more than opportunistic. The restaurant is in an up and coming location, surrounded by trendy design and fashion boutiques, an olive’s throw from the Pearl and walking distance from offices where thousands of people toil hard enough to work up a hearty appetite at lunch. There is not a fine restaurant anywhere in this area, a sad fact consistently reinforced every time I hunt there for one, and one I’d hoped Ristorante Roma would have amended.
There are a dozen choices of antipasti between the price of $5.75 and $13.75:
Bruschetta al Pomodoro, the garlic, oil, tomato standard
Caprese, the tomato and mozzarella standard
Antipasto Italiana, the cold cut plate with assorted meats and cheeses
Antipasto Vegetale Roma, grilled eggplant, roasted peppers, mushrooms and broccolini
Insalata Roma with artichoke hearts and baby shrimp
Insalata di Spinaci, spinach salad with gorgonzola, Kalamato olives and parmigiano cheese
Bresaola Carpaccio, dried cured beef with arugula, tomato and parmigiano
Carpaccio Grana e Arugula, thin slices of beef with arugula, parmigiano and lemon vinaigrette
Saute Cozze Vongole, mussels and clams in white wine and tomato broth
Fantasia di Mare, a fish plate of calamari, shrimp, octopus, salmon, mussels in olive oil and lemon
Prosciutto e melone, in season
There are 16 pasta dishes, served with a small salad in prices ranging from 10.50 for spaghetti with tomato-based sauces up to $13.75 for pastas with seafood.
Spaghetti with tomato sauce
Penne all’Arrabbiata, with spicy tomato sauce
Fettucine ai Funghi Porcini with mushrooms of that name
Spaghetti Carbonara, with pancetta, egg and Pecorino and Parmigiano cheeses
Ravioli di Spinaci al Pomodoro, spinach ravioli in tomato sauce
Rigatoni all’Amatriciana, with pancetta, tomato and Pecorino
Pappardelle Funghi e Salsiccia, with muchrooms and sausage in tomato sauce with cream
Fettucine Bolognese, with a meat sauce
Gnocchi ai Quattro Formaggi, potato dumplings in a creamy sauce of four cheeses (gorgonzola, parmigiano, mozzarella, and pecorino)
Ravioli Bolognese, spinach and ricotta raviolo in a meat sauce
Gnocchi di Patate al Salmone, dumplings in a creamy salmon sauce
Fettucine ai Frutti di Mare (clams, mussels, shrimp)
Pappardelle Mare e Monti (shrimp, calamari, clams, mussels, porcini mushrooms, fresh tomatoes and a “splash” of cognac)
Ravioli all’Astice (lobster ravioli in lobster cream sauce)
Tagliatelle con Gamberetti e Zucchine (shrimp, zucchini in a creamy tomato sauce)
Spaghetti con Vongole (baby manila clams, chili peppers, roasted garlic in a tomato and wine sauce)
There are six Secondi served with vegetables at $16.75 to $21.75
Osso Buco alla Romana, a braised veal shank
Filetto ai Funghi Porcini, a filet mignon with mushrooms
Scaloppine al Vino Bianco, chicken breasts in a white wine sauce
Straccetti con Ruchetta, thinly sliced beef tenderloin in white wine sauce
Branzino ai Frutti Mare, a sea bass with clams and mussels in a white wine sauce (not always available)
Salmone alla Griglia, grilled salmon
Desserts are all $4.75
Italian wines, beers and mineral waters are included in beverage selections.
- Phone: (503) 241-2692
- Address: 622 S.W. 12th Ave., Portland, OR. 97209 Google Map
- Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Friday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday