Italian food can sometimes be a dime a dozen. Standards like chicken parmesan and fettuccine Alfredo lose their luster under the glare of age and ubiquity.
But sometimes, despite familiar menu offerings, a restaurant can surprise even the jaded by presenting food that is thoughtful and well-crafted. This is what I experience recently at Romanza restaurant in the Peppermill Resort Spa Casino.
Romanza is tucked near the buffet and Café Milano. I had seen the exterior, with its statuesque white columns and drapery concealing the restaurant within, but I never had dined there until recently.
As they walk in, diners are greeted by three giant classical statues in the center of the room, a trio surrounded by columns and standing under a star-painted dome sky. Plush booths are arranged about the circular room; they’re perfect for business meetings and intimate meals alike. Varied Italian music — including opera, which I love — adds to the romantic appeal of the place.
The meal begins with a generously-sized basket of bread containing several options. My companion and I try the focaccia, which is soft and delicious spread with sun-dried tomato butter. I usually can’t be tempted by bread, but the focaccia is impossible to resist.
Next, fried rounds of calamari, fennel and onion are deployed with sidecars of spicy marinara and basil aïoli. The calamari is toothsome and more tender than average, and it’s fun to alternate dipping between creamy aïoli and punchy marinara.
Sea scallops are wrapped in pancetta and pan-seared, then served atop tomato-basil sauce The scallops are perfectly cooked, with a hint of pink in the center, and are sliced through like butter. Pancetta provides smoky savoriness to contrast the sweetness of the scallops; the tomato sauce adds freshness.
A Romanza salad is enough for two and features mixed greens, assorted salad vegetables and kicky tomato-basil vinaigrette
Pan-roasted chicken breast comes airline style (part of the wing attached), stuffed with prosciutto, baby arugula and fontina cheese and served atop tomato risotto. The chicken is well cooked, not dry, and the oozy filling pours from the chicken. The risotto is creamy and tastes like it’s flavored with a combination of red and white sauces.
Atlantic salmon is perched on a bed of red wine risotto with parmesan broth. Our waiter, Michael, suggests the salmon be cooked to medium-rare. It doesn’t come out medium-rare, but the medium temperature is fine — the fish is moist and flaky.
Accompanying tomato-basil salad sprinkled atop the fish resembles pico de gallo but doesn’t taste like it. The flavors of fish and salad meld together to create a satisfying dish that doesn’t have the heaviness of salmon with typical cream sauce.
For a sweet finale, we tuck into tiramisù and Sicilian-style lemon meringue tart. The desserts are generously portioned, just like Romanza’s savory courses. The tiramisù is the only disappointment of the evening — it’s dry and lacks the espresso punch and soaked ladyfingers that usually distinguish the dish.
But that’s why you order two desserts — if you don’t care for one, try the other. The lemon tart is drizzled with strawberry sauce and limoncello sorbet. The tartness of the lemon makes the perfect dessert, with the strawberry adding sweetness and the meringue lending a touch of whimsy.
Service during the recent visit to Romanza is delightful. Diners are treated like royalty. Michael the waiter introduces himself to us and insists upon calling us by courtesy titles, a respectfulness that isn’t seen in restaurants much anymore.
Courses arrive in a timely manner. Old plates are whisked away, and new silverware is placed on the table with a flourish before each course. Wine glasses are refilled often — a little too often for my companion. We have to ask the staff to stop pouring her wine.
But is that a bad problem to have? Nope.