The late restaurateur and big game hunter Frank Abbo, who opened the original Roma on 12th Street in 1920, counseled his family to "leave everything alone and it will be okay." So when the restaurant moved to Connecticut Avenue and ownership passed to the second generation, his advice was heeded: Roma looks every bit the part of one of Washington's oldest family run restaurants.
The restaurant seems to have changed little in the past 56 years at its "new" location. A peek into the foyer reveals a veritable museum of framed yellowed newspaper clippings, time-worn awards and most amusingly, a menagerie of stuffed animals whose numbers appear second only to those of the nearby National Zoo. Beyond the relatively compact main dining room -- campily resplendent with red leather booths and jungle-print wallpaper -- are the more staid banquet rooms, and a patio that is used in warm weather.
Permeating the air as much as olive oil and garlic is the familial sense of the staff. For one thing, Mama still presides as hostess and dispenser of chitchat. And there's an added plus in the nightly entertainment, which features a pianist Sunday through Tuesday and both pianist and violinist Wednesday through Saturday.
The oversized menu -- no less than 50 dishes long -- is a throwback to earlier days, featuring pizza and pasta, veal, chicken and fish, plus a number of daily specials. Like other aspects of dining at Roma, generosity carries over to the food, which is highlighted by big portions rather than big tabs. Forget nouvelle creations. This is hearty, robust cooking.
As such, don't expect too much from the more delicate veal dishes, which can be chewy and overseasoned, or entrees of fish. The broiled sea trout I sampled recently was a bit past its prime, with too many bones, though the tartar sauce tasted good enough to be homemade.
Instead, make a meal of the appetizers (the antipasto platter is heaped with large chunks of tuna, chickpeas, cold cuts, cheeses and olive oil) or stick with the wide array of pasta dishes. Baked stuffed lasagna, for example, was an immense slab of layers of meat and cheese, capped with a chunky tomato sauce. Reliable standbys such as the fettuccini alfredo were improved with grated parmesan at the table, while the fettuccini carbonara was heady with the aroma of sauteed sweet onion and liberally laced with diced bacon. Spaghetti is served eight ways, and for those who crave it, the chicken liver and mushroom-topped pasta is quite good, blanketed with a zesty tomato sauce and a generous portion of tasty livers.
The manicotti is adequate, not great; in fact, the dumpling-like, lightly seasoned meatballs that accompany it are more apt to win you over. And pizza, topped with canned mushrooms, was just ordinary the last time I tried it -- its crust slightly soggy.
Still, there's enough to like about Roma to satisfy a crowd of eaters and the accumulation of details tend to minimalize the flaws.
If you haven't filled up on Roma's excellent crusty bread during dinner, you might consider dessert, which follows a strictly Italian course (with the exception of strawberry shortcake): cannoli, cheesecake, tortoni, parfaits of amaretto and creme de menthe, and assorted sherbets and custards round out the offerings.
Nonfussy fare, unharried service and old-fashioned neighborliness underscore the spirit of Roma. It's the sort of place you reserve for those times when you want to dine out without changing clothes -- or breaking the budget.