Like Mama Used to Make

Sincerity and that Old Vegas Italian charm make this strip-mall mamma e papa joint a contender

I’m constantly trolling the Valley for new neighborhood finds, so when two friends called me with enthusiastic recommendations of a place called Roma Garden, I snapped to attention and made a beeline for it.

Max’s Menu Picks

Pasta e Fagioli, $5.50.
Eggplant rollattini, $8 appetizer, $13 entrée.
Fettuccine Bolognese, $11.95.
Chicken piccata, $14.95.

It wasn’t love at first sight. Roma Garden, open four months, is housed in a converted Denny’s on the corner of Russell and Pecos roads, and it shows. Native Roman owner Renato Di Antonio operates the restaurant with his wife, Nina, who helps with service. The décor is slightly tired and the space cavernous and undefined. Wallpaper is embossed with iconic Roman sites including the Colosseum and the Spanish Steps, and the large booths, originally intended for entire families, are upholstered in multicolored fabric. So, my early thinking was that this place would be a good candidate for that Food Network show Restaurant: Impossible.

But it didn’t take long to learn why Roma wouldn’t qualify.

Don’t look for the sort of innovation you get on the Strip. The menu is stocked with tried-and-true examples of antipasti, pasta and main dishes like the Old Vegas warhorse sole Francese, egg-battered, lemon-buttered and as retro as tableside zabaglione, which you won’t find here—or, for that matter, anyplace else in 21st-century Sin City.

You might, however, start a meal with an appetizer such as eggplant rollattini, also offered as a main dish: two tender, tasty eggplant slices rolled around soft basil-infused ricotta, in a pool of the kitchen’s mild, sweet marinara. Another good option is frutta di mare salad, a gently zesty mélange of shrimp, calamari and scallops, mixed with cherry peppers and a lemon-garlic EVOO dressing.

I started with one of the best pasta e fagioli soups in town. Romans like Di Antonio like borlotti beans, a rich brown bean, and so do I. This soup has been slow-cooked, so the beans literally melt into the broth.

Clams and mussels, steamed in broth and served with garlic toast, are tasty enough, but the portion is skimpy. I counted exactly 12 mollusks, and at $11.50 this was one of the few dishes on Roma Garden’s menu that didn’t deliver bang for the buck.

The pizzas certainly do make up for that. The enormous, crisp-crusted diavola came topped with spicy Italian salami, crushed red pepper and roasted peppers for $11.95, enough for at least a family of four as a first course, and two as a shared entrée. Pizzas are cooked in the restaurant’s wood-fire oven and have a bit of corn flour on their bottom for crispness.

There are more than a dozen pizza options, and at least as many pastas. I didn’t taste the carbonara, but I spotted one on an adjacent table, and saw that it was made with an authenticity rarely found in these parts—spaghetti cooked al dente, then tossed with egg, bacon and Parmesan cheese. My Bolognese was excellent, although perhaps with too much sauce (hey, this isn’t Italy), and so was a chicken piccata, sautéed white-meat chicken breast enlivened with garlic, white wine, lemon juice and lots of capers.

My imported Sicilian cassata, a frozen treat studded with fruit and nuts, tasted as if it had been in the freezer for too long, but there is a nice house-made tiramisu, plus cheesecake and house-filled cannoli for compensation.

With a little local encouragement, this place should be a keeper.

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