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The Roma Café
769 Congress Street

Four and 1/4 Plates  
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The Roma Café Reviewed: Fall, 2000

I had heard wonderful things about the Roma Café, an Italian restaurant in Portland's West End. Nearly everyone I know told me it was among the best restaurants in Portland, but I had never been there, so I decided to visit last night with a small group of friends and family. We found it to be a classic atmosphere, with some of the friendliest most professional staff and service in all of Portland, and some delicious food as well.

The locale is a little difficult to find, hidden amongst the other residential buildings along Congress Street. If not for the red awning with the name painted in white you would think it was just another beautiful old brownstone. Likewise the inside has been preserved in its beautiful original design and décor. Huge windows looking out onto Congress Street are partially covered by pale greyish purple curtains adding a subtle touch of color to the room. The main decorations consist of several classic-looking oil paintings of all sizes hanging at regular intervals along the white walls. The lighting is just perfect, not too bright but allowing just enough radiance to bounce off the white décor to create a nice soft atmosphere. The entire restaurant is wonderfully quiet allowing the soft classical music to flow throughout. A winding staircase from the lobby leads to the three upstairs dining rooms and the antique spacious bathrooms. The entire ambience gives you the feeling of being a comforted guest in an elegant home.

The first thing that attracted me to the Roma was the overall feeling of modesty and humility portrayed, from the fairly removed location and simple atmosphere to the unconditionally friendly staff. There is no boasting of greatness or attitude of superiority present whatsoever as one might expect to find at least in moderation based on the highly praising commentary from the public. Yet the Roma Café has every reason to brag as everything about the place is nothing less than fine quality. I have found that the more modest places are always the best at what they do and the loud overconfident ones tend not to live up to the expectations they flaunt.

As we walked in we were greeted by a very amiable host who addressed us by name, which he learned from our reservation, as another staff member offered to hang our jackets on the coat rack in the lobby. We were immediately seated at our reserved table and brought cold glasses of ice water by our very calm, reserved and remarkably professional waitress. There were only two other small parties dining at the same time, the majority of the restaurant completely empty, which surprised me being a Thursday evening. Each table was decorated with a single miniature pumpkin amongst basic place settings and glassware. There were menus waiting for us on the table as well as a large glass dish filled with fresh celery sticks, radishes, and Calamata olives chilled with bits of ice. As we munched on the vegetables and listened to Ravel's Bolero quietly building up in the background we perused the wine list and chose a bottle of Luna di Luna Chardonnay/Pinot Grigio ($22) and a bottle of Blackstone Merlot ($26) for the red wine drinkers. Our wines were served very promptly along with modest sized respective red and white wine glasses.

Our waitress described various specials for the evening, filled us in on the tempting soups du jour, Bean and Sausage and Potato Leek ($3.50), and left us and our imaginations to mull over the many delicious sounding items on the menu. We had a brief discussion regarding ordering appetizers and the general consensus was for ordering both a starter and an entrée. Just as I was about to decide on the Fresh Mozzarella & Plum Tomatoes with roasted peppers, pesto & garlic crostini ($5.95) to begin my meal, the waitress brought a plate full of perfectly stacked buttered and toasted garlic Italian bread to the table along with a dish of freshly grated parmesan to spoon on top of the bread. I decided this would be just fine for me. But others chose to order starter plates from the menu including the Pasta Carbonara ($6.95), the Mixed Green Salad ($3.95) with Creamy Parmesan Peppercorn dressing, and the Sampler Platter for Two ($10.50). These arrived after a substantial period of time during which we happily entertained ourselves with some great conversation, wine sipping and garlic bread snacking to the tune of a Mozart Piano Concerto. There was definitely no feeling of being rushed through our meal.

All of the appetizers were of perfect size and excellent quality. The Pasta Carbonara was a small plate piled with linguine and bits of ham in the rich smoky creamy sauce. My husband's Mixed Green Salad did not last long, a mix of baby greens and red onions completely tossed in the robust Parmesan dressing. Another in our party sampled the Bean and Sausage soup describing the blend of savory ingredients as some of the best soup she's ever had. Likewise both of our friends enjoyed every morsel of the shared Sampler Platter which came with a few each of cocktail shrimp, scallop wraps & crab cakes, any of which can also be ordered as separate appetizer plates for $7.95, $6.95, and $7.95 respectively.

After giving us a bit of time to digest and savor our yummy appetizers, our waitress brought us our very well anticipated and simply presented entrees delivering each plate to exactly whom had ordered it without question. We all unanimously agreed that our entrees were excellent, those of us who ordered meat dishes concurred that it was all of the finest quality, the side vegetables, of which we all had the same were fresh and perfectly cooked, and the wild rice pilaf, although not spectacular, a good filler and accompaniment to the rest. Each dish was served on a plain white plate garnished with a lettuce leaf and two orange slices. The vegetables, fresh crispy green beans, thin red pepper slices, and yellow squash pieces, were sauteed just so to hold the brilliant array of color that decorated the presentation. I had chosen the Chicken Involtini ($15.95), chicken stuffed with prosciutto, asparagus & bel paese cheese and served with a marsala cream sauce. The tender seasoned chicken breast had been pounded, carefully wrapped around soft prosciutto and steamed asparagus sprigs and sliced just so to display the attractive package. The chicken was sitting atop the creamy tomato sauce which added a wonderful flavor to the whole ensemble. I happily polished off the entire dish, save a bit of rice, especially enjoying my vegetables and ending my meal on a very positive note. Other notable entrees that were sampled in our group included the Roasted Vegetable Primavera ($11.95) with roasted peppers, red onion, cherry tomatoes, spinach and fennel in an herb extra virgin olive oil sauce with penne and parmigiana reggiano, the Filet Mignon ($20.95), and the Duck Special for the evening, duck breast rubbed with jerk spices and served in the pan juice. The Vegetable Primavera was served in a huge bowl with tons of penne and a remarkable amount of whole roasted garlic cloves. The flavorful sauce was not too heavy and complemented the subtle flavors of the roasted vegetables nicely. The duck, which wasn't as spicy as anticipated but delightful nonetheless, was served in two good sized pieces, accompanied by the same rice and vegetables as the other entrees, and was greatly enjoyed as well. The comment even arose by our diner that this was the "ultimate" meal, rich pasta carbonara followed by a delicious meal of exquisite duck, the combination possibility to be found no where else but the Roma Café.

After clearing our well cleaned plates, the waitress brought us the platter of desserts for the evening which included a lemon curd tart, a double fudge something or other which looked amazing, tiramisu, and cheesecake. Half of us splurged for desserts and espressos, all of which turned out to be just as tasty as the rest of our meals. Each was served with a small dollop of fresh whipped cream and a sprinkle of tiny fresh blueberries. The lemon tart was thin yet very rich, the sweet and sour of the curd complemented perfectly by the crumbly crust. The tiramisu was superb as well. The sponge cake had been soaked to saturated perfection then alternated with cold coffee-infused cream to create an exceptional version of the classic Italian dessert.

wheelchair accessible
vegetarian selections
vegan selections  
most credit cards accepted
We had a wonderful experience this first time at the Roma Cafe and intend to return again. Our dinner lasted about two hours, despite the longer than usual breaks between courses, the friendly comfortable atmosphere made us happy to be there, gave us all a feeling of relaxation and the delightful food and drink, served at just the right moments made the evening fly by without notice. We all left the restaurant feeling completely satiated and pleased with the whole evening, walking away with a positive impression of the Roma Cafe as one of the better of the local fine dining establishments.  back to the top

      Tracy B. Wheeler is a classical flutist and freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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