Hours: Mon-Sat 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Prices: Sandwiches $5-7; entrees $7-11
Fare: Simple Sicilian, plus luscious desserts
Atmosphere: Casual Italian diner
Bloomfield may proclaim itself Pittsburgh's Little Italy, but lately it seems there is more pad thai than pomodoro in the restaurants of Liberty Avenue. It's almost making us wonder if Little Italy is morphing into Little Southeast Asia. We welcome the opportunity to dine on curry and pho, but we would hate for it to come at the expense of Bloomfield's traditional Italian flavor. After all, as Café Roma's printed paper placemats helpfully inform, "Italy is well-known for its great-tasting foods."
Café Roma is a new Italian restaurant which recently opened its doors near West Penn Hospital. And it gives us hope that Bloomfield's traditionally Italian businesses are not being replaced by Asian concerns, but are thriving in their company.
As its name suggests, Café Roma is a small restaurant, occupying an old-fashioned storefront with a window seat and a high stamped-tin ceiling. Bright lights and a black-and-white paint scheme contribute to an ambience too stark to be intimate, but owner/chef Domenico Aliberto's forays into the dining room are a friendly, personal touch.
The menu is an inexpensive list of sandwiches, salads and mostly pasta-based entrees. With his promise of Sicilian authenticity, Aliberto, a native of Messina and a third-generation chef, raises the stakes on what could be a routine list of Italian-American favorites. Small, special qualities abound, such as the freshly baked dinner rolls and sandwich buns.
Then there are the servings, which are anything but small. Angelique's side salad -- a plate of mixed greens, tomatoes, cucumbers and carrot coins -- was the size of a light lunch. As for her lasagna -- the "must try!" house specialty -- well, let's just say that even if we had toiled all day in the vineyards, we're not sure we could have put an entire portion away. Easily half a dozen layers of velvety homemade pasta, sweet tomato sauce, finely ground beef and cheese added up to a delectably creamy texture that made each bite seem to melt in the mouth. And was that béchamel sauce in addition to the meaty marinara? It sure tasted like it.
Jason tried the chicken Alfredo with penne. Expecting shredded chicken tossed with the noodles, he was pleasantly surprised to be served a whole breast, dredged, sautéed and smothered in a cheese sauce that tasted strongly of fine Parmegiano and remained creamy and smooth even as it cooled. Dazzled by the low prices, Jason also sampled a chicken parmesan sandwich. The marinara sauce was present on the crisp roll, but then again, the flavor of the nutty cheese predominated.
As much as we enjoyed our entrees, we were about to discover that they were really just a prelude to dessert. Café Roma features a bakery case filled with homemade tiramisu, cannoli, profiterole, beignet, tarts and cakes. Low prices again removed our barriers to temptation, and soon we had four desserts before us.
Chocolate cannoli was dominated by the rich cocoa flavor of a fluffy ganache-style filling within a subtly sweet, cracker-crisp shell, all dusted with a snow of confectioners' sugar. Apple and peach turnovers were wrapped in a crust that was flaky without falling apart, and the not-too-sweet fruit filling was ample enough to flavor each bite without overloading the pastry. Tiramisu -- a slice almost as enormous as the lasagna -- featured the contrast of liqueur-soaked ladyfingers and light, fluffy flavored whipped cream.
As she forked up every last crumb, Angelique could not help but recall the Italian cafés in the North End of Boston that she frequented when she lived there. As espresso machines hissed and gurgled, patrons sipped the strong brew and indulged in Old World-style pastries, enjoying an afternoon or after-dinner repast behind windows steamy with condensation. There is no place quite like this in Pittsburgh's Little Italy -- or should we say not yet? Café Roma offers authentic Sicilian preparations at an excellent value, and as it acquires a more permanent feeling, we can see it becoming Bloomfield's sweet spot for Italian dining and, especially, dessert.
Jason: 3 stars
Angelique: 3 stars