Too Little, Too Late — First impressions of the Roma Cafe

Nostalgia is one hell of a spicy meatball. Powerful longings for and affection toward the past have been used to boost sales of cameras, movie tickets and everything in between over the course of the last century, with food being no exception to the rule. Whether it be the first drop of Zima in nine years or a dining concept built around a bygone era, the intersection of food and nostalgia is impossible to ignore.

The Roma Cafe operates under the latter principle. First opened in 1924 by Italian immigrant Dominic Marino (who would later pass the business along to his two sons), The Roma would eventually be billed as Portland's “most romantic restaurant” before closing its doors under a second ownership in 2008. The Bramhall Pub, downstairs, suffered a similar fate until reopened in 2014 by Mike Fraser, who is also responsible for resuming dinner service at the Roma for the first time in nine years.

Classic Italian fare of strong quality is not exactly available in droves throughout southern Maine, positioning the Roma’s new incarnation for success right from day one. And the interest is there — an hour wait on a Wednesday evening for a two-top, a dining room bubbling with baby boomers eager to cut into their first bite of Veal Milanese in nearly a decade.

During a recent visit, however, execution proved to be lacking across the board.

 

marsala 

Roma Cafe's Chicken Marsala with a sauté of summer squash and side of pasta.

Things started strong when a well-made, spongy focaccia showed up to the table alongside a plate of pickled vegetables, fruity olive oil and nutty Grana Padano cheese — generously on the house. Chicken liver Toscano arrived next, showcasing a mousse smooth in texture, yet unapologetically iron-forward in taste and garnished with flat-leaf parsley and rough-chopped tomatoes. Calamari Fritti — otherwise breaded and fried to perfection — was rendered difficult to eat by an egregious presence of salt.

Unfortunately, entrées of Bucatini Amatriciana and Chicken Marsala also failed to impress, the former characterized by a thin, watery sauce and saved only by the inclusion of smoky guanciale. While unoffensive enough, the Marsala — flanked by a sauté of summer squash and side of pasta that felt like afterthoughts — somehow lacked flavor despite also being seasoned with a heavy hand. Though a saving grace could be found in a side of meatballs (plump, yielding and unctuous), my dining partner and I both agreed it was too little, too late.

Fold-in exceedingly long wait times between dishes (especially for a Wednesday night), as well as a potentially gorgeous dining room tarnished by wall-to-wall fake candles, and it’s clear that the new incarnation of the Roma Cafe has some work to do. After all, nostalgia can only get you so far in a dining town with such a strong focus on execution.


The Roma | 767 Congress St., Portland | Sun-Thu 5-9:30 pm; Fri-Sat 5-10 pm | 207.761.1611

 

First Bites: Little Giant

Open since last winter, Hunt and Alpine owners Briana and Andrew Volk’s specialty foods shop — aptly named “Little Giant” — has become one of the best places in the city to take home a special treat in celebration of a job well done (or just getting through the day in 2017). What first comes off as a modest selection of food staples and other sundries turns out to be a highly curated assortment of some of the world’s finest culinary offerings upon further inspection — think hard-to-find canned fish, artisanal salumi and a small but serious wine section.

Now, the Volks can count a third Portland venture as part of their portfolio with the opening of Little Giant’s full-service restaurant, connected to the shop (though walled-off) at 211 Danforth St. Helmed by Chef Rian Wyllie and Bar Manager Max Overstrom-Coleman, the restaurant claims to focus on “Continental European cuisine with an eye to New England ingredients and traditions” and serves a full menu from 3 to 11 pm every day. It’s a natural extension of Little Giant the shop, offering an ingredient-centric dining experience and a visual attention to detail evident in both plating and the design of the space itself.

I recently stopped in for an early evening weeknight solo dinner, which proved to be an excellent introduction to what the kitchen at Little Giant has been up to since opening in July. A fried calamari taco with cherry pepper relish, lemon aioli and house-made squid ink tortilla was at once playful and familiar, bursting with salinity and finishing clean — the kind of thing I never knew absolutely needed to exist until it was put in front of me.

Creative in its own simplicity was a dish of grilled asparagus, served with spring onions, fresno chile, chimichurri and “chorizo breadcrumbs,” the latter of which should be packaged and sold as a pantry item. Balance abound, this was a harmonious display of salt, acid and vegetable char if I’ve ever seen one.

The LG Burger & Jojos (read: burly, delicious steak fries) served as the evening’s entrée, a no-frills take on the diner staple topped with American cheese, pickled grilled red onion, iceberg lettuce and BBQ mayo. Though a bit on the small side, the burger’s sheer and undulating juiciness made up for any perceived size discrepancies demanding bite after blissful bite. I left full and happy.

Little Giant is shaping up to be one of the West End’s premier dining destinations, and I wholeheartedly look forward to eating my way through the rest of the menu.


 

Little Giant | 211 Danforth St., Portland | 3-11 pm | www.littlegiantmaine.com 

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