The Rome

Since the decline and fall of Trattoria Strada Nova Columbia has been without exceptional Italian food. Several restaurants in town are capable of serving inspired, quasi-Italian dishes, but none make it their singular focus. It’s a shame, and a singularly resounding lament for mid-Missouri’s food enthusiasts.

More than a shame, it is a disgrace. No one food culture is more revered by Americans than Italian. The simple, straightforward preparations and commitment to quality ingredients make it a naturally appealing option to value-conscious diners. That accessibility renders refined Italian cuisine a natural bridge between its lowest and highest forms (think Fazoli’s versus Boston’s Lucca). Still, the middle ground in Columbia is left vacant. Trattoria was, for a time, a worthy occupant of this niche (I still remember a simple beef carpaccio with capers, arugula, olive oil and parmigianno I had there) but faded long before its ultimate demise. For years now the space has sat, shuddered, in a wonderful location on Ninth Street.

I had some hopes that The Rome, with an admittedly more checkered-tablecloth vibe, might at least temper our good Italian needs. So much for all that. Instead, my experiences at The Rome have been a disappointing seesaw. Nice veal ala Roma spoiled by grease and gummy gnocchi. An utterly pathetic “antipasto platter” followed by a delicious lasagne. It’s been just good enough to warrant three visits, but bad enough to generate no real enthusiasm.

Let’s start with the menu, which manages to be simultaneously confusing and utterly devoid of imagination. Really, do I come here for buffalo chicken salad? Do we really need five kinds of fettuccine alfredo?

Then the food.

The marinated conch salad my wife and I shared recently was good enough. It came out with a generous portion of tender, tasty snails but was overdressed and served on “mixed field greens,” The Rome’s euphemism for romaine lettuce and a few lonely fronds of baby spinach. The veal parmigiana too elicits only grudging acceptance. “It’s…not bad,” Mrs. Show-Me Eats said, passing a taste my way. The dish came with a choice of pastas, in this case a congealed tangle of angel hair, the whole thing covered in red sauce and cheese. I agreed with her assessment. Nothing offensive, but nothing more than adequate.

Also ho-hum was the Italian salsicce pizza.The toppings – roasted sweet peppers, sausage and cheese – were actually quite good. But the thick, bready crust was supremely bland and could have come from the grocery store freezer section. Not bad for DiGiorno, but shouldn’t we expect a little more here? Whatever sauce was present barely registered at all.

Adding insult to injury was the wine-by-the-glass situation. Perhaps I should have taken it as a clue, but “Barbera” was misspelled on the wine menu. When it arrived I could taste every week it had been open. It was replaced by a decent chianti – clearly what I should have ordered in the first place.

Our bill for the evening, with tip, ran nearly $75. Judging by the cavernous and nearly-empty dining room, not many Columbians are willing to shell out $20 for entrees that may or may not be much better than those at Bambino’s, which at least affords the convenience of costing half as much.

Unfortunately, despite high hopes and eager, earnest owners, The Rome aims low and hits the mark.

And so our search for quality Italian food in mid-Missouri continues…

UPDATE: A dissenting opinion, at least with regards to the food.

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Author: Scott

I am a married father of two. I graduated from Rock Bridge High School and then Mizzou before spending six years in the Washington, D.C. area. We returned to Columbia, Missouri in 2006.

8 thoughts

  1. Agree on all points. In addition, the staff is friendly but service is slow even with the very few customers. I miss Trattoria Strada Nova!

  2. Chris and I have been to the Rome once and we both agree with your assessment….we won’t dine there again unless the food remarkably improves.

  3. Like a lot of “ethnic” foods in the US, there is the real thing, and the American version. Italian is particulary susceptible to this. If you’ve never had the real thing, in the home country, it’s easy to become accustomed to the American version. But once you know better, you can’t really go back. It’s almost impossible to find real Italian in the US, and I’ve basically stopped trying. Even the higher-end place on The Hill that I tried was a bastardized version of authenticity (no self-respecting Italian serves white bread).

    So I never had any interest in The Rome, because it seemed clear to me from the start that it was not real. We can almost always do better at home (particularly Joanna, who lived in rural Italy for a time and knows what she’s doing).

    One of the core failures of most American Italian restaurants is their ingredients. No matter how many Italian recipes you read, if you use crappy or generic ingredients, you’re not going to get the right effect. Real Italian food is fundamentally based in its location, sourcing freshly and directly from its region. The flavor of Italian is the flavor of freshness; it is a cuisine founded on the basic flavors of its ingredients. Canned or California tomatoes will never taste like fresh tomatoes. Real basil from the restaurant’s own garden is better than something from Sysco. Feedlot meat will never compare with real meat. Seafood from the freezer will never taste like seafood from the dock. This is why the few good Italian restaurants in this country (in my experience) tend to be the ones sourcing from local farms and using truly seasonal menus to capture the always-fresh flavor of Italy. They’re the ones that make their own sauce from fresh produce, storing it for winter use, and so on, the way real Italians do it.

    Nothing I’ve read or seen about the Rome implied that they understood this, or that they had the courage to not bow to Americanization. Now I’m convinced of it. They may make a go of it, as decent American Italian can still be plenty popular and successful. But you won’t find me paying for it.

  4. You mean to say that Italian restaurants in the US are not like Italian restaurants in Italy? Never would have guessed that. Pardon my sarcasm, I couldn’t resist.

    Once you take the original cuisine out of its own country, it’s very difficult for it to maintain its authenticity. Italian-American cuisine was developed by immigrants (like my great-grandparents) who came to the US and had to make do with what they had. Many Italian immigrants came here poor (at least during the days of Ellis Island) and often moved into regions that had a wildly different climate than most of southern Europe, so obviously they didn’t have access to the same quality and variety of fresh ingredients. They came, they cooked with what they had, they adopted new influences and created something different.

  5. The Rome doesn’t have to be a traditional Italian restaurant. I’d be fine if it were a really good spaghetti-and-meatballs place, but it’s not. It’s just okay.

    What I’m complaining/whining about is a lack of the option. Somebody should be able to recreate very good, traditional Italian food using many ingredients that thrive right here in mid-Missouri. Eric, I bet Joanna could attest to this possibility. We won’t ever have olives or artichokes, but for the most part, it could be done.

    And I’ll take a good checkered-tablecloth place while we’re at it. 😉

  6. Scott,
    Oh, I’m totally with you on the lack of decent Italian food in Columbia. I do Bambino’s for the salad, and that’s about it. I admit to not having tried the Rome yet, mostly due to the reviews I’ve heard from people who have tried it. I will give it a shot eventually, it’s just not on my priority list.

    I suppose I may be a little touchy today overall.

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