Roma Ristorante: Cozy, friendly Italian

Creative plating at Roma Ristorante.

A maître d'? In a little strip mall Italian restaurant? I was surprised too, but happy to see that Ristorante Roma, which opened in December in Carmel's Monon Square plaza, has someone in charge of the dining room.

And not just a person who leads you to a table and hands you a menu. I'm talking about someone who's actually running the front of the house, which seems to have become the exception rather than the rule. In this case, the Ristorante Roma maitre d' is formerly of the Glass Chimney.

That's not to say that our dinner at Ristorante Roma was without rough spots. We stopped in for dinner on a recent weeknight without reservations and were happy to see that the restaurant was busy. But an unexpectedly busy night, coupled with a dining room that was short staffed, resulted in some flaws in timing. But good food and a comfortable atmosphere more than made up for it.

Chef/owner Lucio Romani has created a cozy restaurant and given it some personality with a warm color scheme, wrought iron accents and photo murals of Italy. It's just the kind of place that could become your favorite little Italian restaurant.

But it's not your typical pile-on-the-red-sauce-and-cheese kind of place. On the menu, Romani points out that when he came to America, he saw plenty of what he considered culinary "sins": "Pasta used as side dishes, pasta with chicken, spaghetti with big meatballs or full sausages on top, cappuccino at the end of the meal, noodles swimming in a pool of sauce."

So you won't find the typical Italian-American fare. But what you will find is a small menu of flavorful, well-prepared dishes and a wine list with about a dozen wines by the glass. So we nibbled on excellent bread, ordered glasses of wine (an $8.50 Sauvignon blanc and a $6 Sangiovese) and looked over the menu.

We started with calamari ($9), what seems to have become the ubiquitous Italian restaurant appetizer. But this version wasn't breaded and deep-fried with marinara. The rings and whole small squid were sautéed and served with bites of Venetian-style polenta and a lemon mayonnaise. It was a great starter, tender, tasty and interesting.

Entrees arrived not long after, and this is where the timing problem appeared. We had ordered salads, a house and a Caesar, both $5.25, and so were taken by surprise with the appearance of the entrees. And here is where a maitre d' can make a real difference: He noticed the issue immediately and was at our table making sure that the solution, of serving the salads alongside the entrees, was acceptable.

We didn't mind, especially when chef/owner Romani came out to apologize. This quick attention makes a real difference in the dining experience because, let's face it: problems happen. In this case, it was a busy night, the dining room was short staffed and the server thought our salads had already been delivered. But quick attention to the issue resolved the problem and, rather than grumbling to each other about things, we ended up laughing with the chef about having our salads European-style at the end of the meal.

And we definitely enjoyed our entrees. The special of the evening, housemade pasta in a creamy walnut and gorgonzola sauce ($19.50) was rich and boldly flavored, a moderately sized portion that seemed just right. Other pastas aren't made in house, but the chef said he typically offers a daily housemade option. When it's gone, it's gone, though, so try it when you see it.

The other entrée we ordered, chicken and sausage with mashed potatoes and caramelized Brussels sprouts, $17.50, may not seem like a typical Italian dish, but it was one of the best I've tried lately. The piece of boneless, skinless chicken (which can easily be dry and bland) was tender and perfectly cooked, and the generous piece of sausage was flavorful without being spicy. The sides of mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts were tasty as well.

Despite the problem with the salad course, we thoroughly enjoyed our dinner. The chef added a complimentary serving of tiramisu to go, $4.25, to make up for the salad mishap, further convincing us of his attention to detail. We'll be trying Roma Ristorante again.