Roma Restaurant and Roman Market in Willernie, MN

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Calling something “comfort food” is a back-handed compliment, so before getting to the meat of this review and discussing the food and ambiance at Roma Restaurant and Roman Market, we first need to defuse this ticking semantic bomb.

There are many different reasons that we go out to eat. Sometimes, we’re looking for adventurous dining that pushes the gastronomic envelope. Sometimes we’re looking for the best food money can buy. Sometimes we’re looking to cross cultural boundaries. And sometimes we’re looking for an experience that makes us smile, without effort or calculation.

Gourmands tend to emphasize the adventure and excellent food; chowhounds the excellent food and cultural tourism; but neither tend to acknowledge that the warmth and comfort are equally worth celebrating.

What is comfort food, but a gastronomic expression of hospitality, the beating heart of the very idea of dining out? If your primary goal is to make people feel welcome, relaxed, and un-self conscious, it becomes more difficult to push boundaries and blow minds — and that’s a reasonable trade-off.

When you think of some of the first dining out experiences enjoyed by humanity, you might think back to ancient pilgrims, on the road to some shrine or relic, looking for an inn or hospitable dwelling with food and a dry place to sleep. The goal here wasn’t the world’s best huckleberry-drizzled pan-seared foie gras or a marshmallow made of caviar foam — it was to get out the elements, drink clean water, good wine, and healthy food, and avoid being killed by bandits.

In that sense, Roma hearkens back to the old school. An unflaggingly friendly staff work the restaurant. During our first meal there, we drifted over to the deli-section “market” part of the dual-purpose establishment to check out the sausages and cheeses. “How was your meal?” asked a guy who was working behind the counter. He asked it cheerfully. He meant it. He was both confident that we’d enjoyed the meal, and eager to hear it from our lips.

During our second meal, we ordered a cannoli for dessert. The waitress came back with bad news from the chef — the cannoli had been sitting out, they weren’t really all that good, but if we wanted one, it would be on the house. We shrugged, and gave it a shot — how bad can a free cannoli be? As it turns out, a cannoli can be very soft and cakelike if it sits around for too long — not a disaster, but far from ideal. But we’d been warned, so we gamely plowed through the filling, leaving the shell. As we were preparing to pay the bill, the waitress brought out a large bowl of caramel / cappuccino gelato. “It’s from the chef,” she explained. “He felt bad about the cannoli.”

He didn’t need to feel bad about the cannoli — we had been explicitly warned about it! Like idiots, we took one anyway, and for this, we were rewarded with a second complementary dessert.

Here’s where the food snob would huff and puff. “They should never have had old cannoli in the first place! Each cannoli should be filled to order! The shells should be baked from scratch daily, on premises!”

Fair enough, on all counts — that’s how the world’s best cannoli get made and served. But if you fixate on an old cannoli, you miss the important part of this story — the chef checked out the order before it went out, gave the customers an accurate status update, refused to charge for it, and even sent out a post-dessert dessert in order to apologize. All this on a Saturday night, with customers, waitstaff, food, and drinks flying around everywhere.

The waiters and waitresses at Roman Market are nice. They are attentive. They seem happy to run into their regular customers, who are numerous, but they also welcome the newcomer without prejudice or chill.

And the food, hell, the food is, in a word, delicious. Complicated, no. Shocking or surprising, not so much.

But take a dish like the Spirito appetizer ($7, pictured at top). It’s a crispy / chewy herbed flatbread cut into pieces and served with three little containers of spread — pesto, finely diced tomatoes, and goat cheese. That’s it. The pesto looked and tasted freshly made, the goat cheese was mild and creamy, and all three of the options were great matches for the bread, which was, incidentally, tasty unto itself.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

A spinach-artichoke dip ($8.50), served with the same flatbread, was equally tasty — it had a discernible salty parmesan kick, and was rich, smooth, and creamy. Probably not health food. Not real sophisticated. Frickin’ delicious.

Portions are large at the Market, which works out well. Fourteen dollars seems like a lot to pay for a plate of spaghetti bolognese (bottom). But when there are three meals worth of spaghetti, it gets a lot more reasonable; when it’s spaghetti liberally enriched with good cheese and generous portions of meat, it becomes a bargain. Again, this isn’t a pretentious plate of spaghetti — it’s Italian-American soul food, rich, meaty, well balanced, and comforting as home.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

A house special braised beef ravioli ($17) was less of a steal, but was a surprisingly adventurous offering amid an otherwise conventional Italian-American pasta / pizza / sandwich-focused menu. The texture of the beef was velveteen, and the use of a light-on-the-palate brown sauce and finely diced vegetables elevated the dish.

The restaurant’s beer list is small but excellent, with some Belgian and German favorites sharing space with locals such as Stillwater’s Lift Bridge, available on tap.

The pizza also merits mentioning — it’s an adapted version of the chewy / crispy flatbread that gives the Spirito its charm. As with everything else at the restaurant, the ingredients taste fresh and seem to be of high quality; while the subs and pasta may be the heart of the meal, pizza is ably executed and yet another reason to come calling on this Italian-American refuge from the dour and / or soulless stuff that typifies too much of the modern suburban restaurant scene.

If you’re closer to Roma than you are to Fat Lorenzo’s (this restaurant’s cross-town soul brother), this is your lucky day: You’ve got a new opportunity for wonderful, earthy, stick-to-your-ribs cuisine. And if you’re closer to Fat Lorenzo’s, there’s no reason not to give Roma a try — you’ll miss the Upper Midwest’s best gelato, but be delighted by the spinach-artichoke dip. And you’ll wonder why you never made it out to Willernie before, if all the people are as nice as the ones at Roma Restaurant and Roman Market.

Roma Restaurant and Roman Market
★★★☆ (excellent)

Italian-American in Willernie, MN
460 Stillwater Rd
Willernie, MN 55090
651.653.4733
HOURS:
10am-9pm Mon-Thu
10am-10pm Fri-Sat
9am-8pm Sun
OWNERS: Brent and Brian Pilrain
BAR: Beer and wine
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $8-17

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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James Norton

James Norton is editor and co-founder of the Heavy Table. He is also the co-author of Lake Superior Flavors, the co-author of a book about Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers, and a regular on-air contributor to Minnesota Public Radio.

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9 Comments

  1. I like your image of the pilgrim coming out of the elements; the hearty rusticity of the food it conjures up is very appealing. As for the various dining experiences you describe, I like to think I’m open to a good balance of all of them.

  2. Roma is one of my local favorites. It also happens to be a favorite of the family. I have been there several times, always getting something new and there is still more I want to try. Cheers to the Pilrains and crew.

  3. I don’t think “comfort food” is a backhanded compliment at all. To me, it sounds like there might be mashed potatoes involved.

  4. I’ve been to the Roman once and wish it were closer (like Fat Lorenzo’s is) so that I could go there more often. The pizza, the Balsamico, I had was great!

  5. Roma has been a very pleasent experience for me and my family. We are closer to Fat Lorenzo’s, however, the pizza and daily specials keep us coming back. I have also enjoyed sitting at the bar and having a couple bumps and talking with other patrons. Very comfortable atmosphere and great food.

  6. Love to eat07/25/2010Reply

    Wow, the menu is well thought out, and has something for everyone. i have been there more than 15 times and every time it is delicious. the pasta carnival is my favorite dish

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