The Roma Café you remember is gone forever. You should know that from the outset. The original, an Italian-American restaurant that once occupied the lower floors of the Rines mansion in Portland’s West End, had a remarkable run. When its white tablecloths were taken to the laundry for the last time in 2008, the restaurant had been open (and mostly family-owned) for the better part of 80 years. It was, to many locals, the place to celebrate special occasions.

Nearly 10 years later, Mike Fraser, the owner of Bramhall – the bar/bistro in the basement of the same building – and Anders Tallberg, the chef behind the short-lived Roustabout, decided to resurrect Roma Café, at least in spirit. “We knew if we wanted to keep it as the Roma Café, that brought about some expectations. So we’re reviving it, but it’s different. We’re gunning for a neighborhood restaurant where people can come hang out, or, you know, if Uncle Bob is in town, you can say, ‘Let’s go to The Roma,’ ” Tallberg explained.

In many ways, Tallberg is the ideal person to undertake a reimagining of an Italian-American icon. In addition to his soulful, yet unerringly contemporary, approach to Italian cooking at Roustabout, his experience includes a stint at Napa Valley, California’s Bistro Don Giovanni, as well as four years in the kitchen of a tiny, single-family Italian restaurant in Keene, New Hampshire. At this point, he’s practically an honorary nonna.

“For the food, we want to keep it classic Italian-American: spaghetti and meatballs, cutlets, that sort of thing,” he said.

Rejecting formality in favor of familiarity is very on-trend, and it’s transforming more than The Roma’s menu. Gone are the stuffy service captains, acres of heavy drapery and even the white tablecloths. In their place, leather-cushioned bench seating, a stone-topped bar and neutral paint colors accented by tiny test tubes, each containing an individual branch pimpled with winter berries. On the walls of the main dining room, dozens upon dozens of votives flicker on floating shelves. Catch a glimpse of those candles in the mirror and it’s hard not to feel a little like Sting in the “Wrapped Around Your Finger” video.

In its gestures toward simplicity, The Roma seems to have let some important things slide. When I arrived with a guest on a recent rainy evening, we were ushered to our table with our wet coats and dripping umbrellas in tow. We had little choice, so we placed our outerwear next to us on the banquette, just as all the other diners had done. As we left, we nearly slipped on a pool of water from our neighbors’ four umbrellas. Surely, there must be room somewhere in the mansion for a coat rack and umbrella holder.

Service can feel a bit skimpy, as well. At one stage, we had to start an empty dish pile, because our table was loaded down with entrée plates and bowls, bread plates, empty wine and cocktail glasses, appetizer plates and a generous platter of decent housemade focaccia, shards of Grana Padano cheese and a dull, quick-pickled giardiniera that needed more acid.

At the center of the crush of dishware: a birdbath-sized bowl containing the house salad for two ($13). Tallberg’s version intentionally echoes the monster salads of his youth. “It’s a throwback to the Olive Garden and to Seguino’s, the fancy Italian-American restaurant (formerly in Bangor). They both have chopped, family-style house salads,” he said. “I love the idea of sharing salad for meals, but with good quality provolone, pepperoncini and a great dressing.” The Roma’s is a solid enough bowl of greens; its standout component is the fatty, fine-grained nubs of air-dried pepperoni from Salumeria Biellese in Hackensack, New Jersey.

Another large appetizer, the Chicken Liver Toscano ($8) – a grilled slice of Standard Baking Company’s levain bread slathered in chicken liver mousse and topped with chopped vinegar peppers – is a head-scratcher, both conceptually and in its execution. Into seared chicken livers, The Roma adds shallots, sweet vermouth, heavy cream and, in a blender, a county fair’s worth of butter. “By the time we’re done, it’s about 50/50 livers and butter,” Tallberg said. But by diluting the livers’ funky, mineral flavor with so much dairy, then adding sharply acidic peppers, the kitchen creates a peculiar whipped spread that, in the dark, could easily pass for a too-tangy bleu cheese dressing.

Entrées, all of which include pasta, are where The Roma’s vision of producing high-quality, familiar Italian-American dishes starts to take shape. It’s halfway there in the veal piccata ($25), served with slow-roasted moons of local delicata squash and a nest of simply dressed al dente linguine with olive oil and Grana Padano cheese. Yet on my most recent visit, the pounded cutlet was tough in spots and covered so completely with capers that I could not see what was underneath.

Clockwise from left rear, Julia Morelli, Ed Mendelsohn, Lydia Percival, Peter Morelli and Jan Morelli enjoy a family dinner at the newly reopened Roma Café. Staff photos by Brianna Soukup

The calamari puttanesca ($24), on the other hand, is a fully realized dish that puts Tallberg’s skills with both pasta and seafood on full display. Cooking with squid is a challenge in the best of times; over high heat, it goes from delicate to garden-hose in an instant. The condition of your calamari matters, as well. “We clean our squid daily,” Tallberg said. “It’s a super monotonous task that my cooks would probably love not to do, but you can’t expect frozen, pre-cleaned calamari to taste good.”

So in a “ripping hot pan,” they flash-sauté fresh squid tentacles and rings until they are barely cooked, then combine them with extra-thick artisanal spaghetti and, best of all, The Roma’s housemade tomato sauce. Tallberg’s marinara might well be the best thing on the menu. It is rugged – pulpy with crushed and diced whole tomatoes, and sweet from sautéed onions and a little sugar. Exactly the sort of classic, slow-cooked “gravy” that gives red-sauce cooking its name.

In close contention for Roma Café’s best dish is pastry chef Emily Delois’s dark chocolate, toasted pistachio and Amarena cherry spumoni ($8), a tri-color layering of house-made ice creams, sliced and topped with candied pistachios and a crunchy chocolate crumble. It’s a traditional dish, but upgraded in all the right ways.

“I think I could eat four more of those,” a middle-aged woman says to her server as she prepares to leave. She is dining at The Roma with her husband, and she tears up a little as she tells the server how they shared their first date at the original Roma Café, sometime in the 1980s. “It’s not like I remember it,” her husband says, putting his arm around her shoulder. “But I sure am glad it’s back.”

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

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Twitter: @AndrewRossME