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.
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