The Rome, occupying the former home of 9th Street Billiards, opened Saturday. And judging by the menu, not a moment too soon. The owners seem interested in keeping a foot each in college bar and homestyle Italian restaurant. The first nod to the college crowd (starting back up at Mizzou in a mere three weeks) is the aforementioned menu, which is heavy on bar-food appetizers (hot wings, chicken tenders, etc.). Beers on tap include Boulevard, Blue Moon, Guinness and Bud Light (bottled options are more extensive). Wine options are sadly limited to little more than the usual suspects (three of the six whites are pinot grigio). With Top Ten Wines offering Columbia’s best wine selection directly across the street, wine fans can hope for better variety in the future.
There is, however, an impressive array of traditional Italian-American favorites. Lasagne, chicken piccata and marsala dishes of all kinds dot the menu. Harder to find are more ambitious items, though “marinated snail salad” does make an appearance. For lunch today I ordered a small antipasto plate and the lasagne. The antipasto, promising garden-fresh vegetables, salami and ham is a forlorn-looking salad of chopped iceburg lettuce topped with a couple cucumber slices, salami and supermarket tomatoes. The ham is on par with Oscar Meyer and the provolone is as tame as most. Served alongside is a ramekin of bottled Italian “vinaigrette.” No olives, roasted red peppers, real tomatoes, mozzarella or really anything else that suggests antipasto in my mind (and $8 to boot). Not a good start, but I held out hope.
The lasagne, however, was excellent. A giant brick of surprisingly light texture and flavor. The tomato sauce is bright and flavorful and the pasta perfectly cooked. Ricotta and chewy mozzarella were in perfect, complimentary opposition. I had to deploy willpower I lacked over the weekend (mmm, gravy-covered pork tenderloin in Lexington, MO) and managed to take a third of it home.
As far as service goes, if The Rome fails it will not be for lack of enthusiasm. The hostess was friendly and introduced herself after I asked how the opening weekend had gone. The bartender was pleasant and attentive, if absent-minded. The throngs of opening-weeks waitstaff standing around will – as always – be winnowed down to a level less numerous than diners at some point soon. The space itself is alarmingly cavernous – it just might be the largest dining room in the downtown – and feels more like a bar than the red checkered tablecloth place I had in mind.
Still, my guess is that Columbia now has the solid, mid-dollar Italian-American restaurant we’ve been clamoring for all these years. Only time will tell whether Rome can consistently find enough Romans to make it worth it.