If Roman Villa were a song, it'd be a golden oldie, one you keep humming and tapping your toe to long after the music ends. This perennial favorite has been serving Italian food since 1959 and, judging by the midweek crowd on a recent visit, no one's tiring of the tune.
Roman Villa is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday. This is a small (think crowded instead of intimate) venue. Doors open at 5 p.m. By 5:30 the night of my recent visit, every table was full with a line to get in the door. Our wait was only about 30 minutes, and our server said that even though most nights are busy, he was surprised by how much the place was hopping.
But Amber Tong, granddaughter of the late founders, said, "There's always a crowd, so we're fortunate. Sometimes people will come and see we're really busy and they'll leave, but it's more of a 'we'll catch you next time' than being upset." Thanks to the welcoming aromas that greet diners as soon as they walk in the door, the wait for a table is bearable - although the whiffs of food make a hungry person even hungrier.
Once seated, another 30-minute wait is in store for anyone ordering lasagna ($13.50). As our server said, "You'll have salad and bread, and if you're enjoying good company it goes by fast." He was right. When the bubbling entrée arrived at our table, we were surprised by the amount. Three layers of pasta, meat, cheese and mushrooms are baked in deep-dish, single-serving ramikens that could easily feed two. Each tier of this timeless Italian fare oozes sauce and gooey cheese. It tastes like something an Italian grandma would make. Tong said the lasagna and tortellacci are among the most popular dishes. Both revolve around fresh-made pasta. Tortellaci ($12.25) is a large version of tortellini. The ring-shaped pasta is stuffed with spinach and cheese, then covered with a creamy, tangy tomato sauce. It's the kind of food you want to keep eating long past the point of being sated. We raised the bar by adding a meatball to the order; the emphasis was on meat rather than breadcrumb fillers that many places succumb to where the result is more like meatloaf. That's not the case here; in fact, it seemed to melt in the mouth.
Linguine and Clams Alla Zio ($12.25) is a large portion of pasta with chopped clams in white wine sauce. I had a taste and thought the red pepper flakes dusting the top came close to overwhelming the entire dish, although my friend said he thought the dish was well prepared and enjoyed it.
Just because it bears the restaurant's name, it seemed a good idea to try the Roman Villa Chicken ($12.25). Chicken breast has the potential to be dry, in texture and flavor, but here it's thin and moist. It's baked with artichoke hearts, slices of fresh tomatoes and mozzarella that caramelizes in what our server described as a 500-plus-degree oven. This came with a side of spaghetti and tomato sauce (marinara). Once I tasted the chicken I knew it was worthy of its namesake. All entrees are served with a choice of Caesar or house Italian salad. The latter comes with the option of bleu cheese crumbles; the former boasts traces of anchovies without physical evidence of their presence, which is my favorite type of Caesar.
With the exception of linguini, mostaccioli and rigatoni, all the pastas are made in-house, according to Tong. In addition to the pasta dishes, Roman Villa's pizza is another popular item, particularly among the takeout crowd.
Following our meal we were all far too full to order dessert, but four of the five options are what's traditionally found in Italian restaurants: tiramisu ($4); spumoni ($3); cannoli ($3.50); and cheesecake ($3.50). The other choice is ice cream ($3).
Roman Villa does not take reservations, but it's worth waiting for a table. Just think of some favorite Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett melodies and the time slips away before you know it.