Diner: Classy Little Number

Trattoria Roma offers good Italian food from scratch

I try on Italian restaurants like most women try on shoes. I thought I'd found the perfect fit when I happened upon Trattoria Roma one night — a classy little number, not too fancy but nice enough for a night on the town.

Tucked away between the array of restaurants that popped up when the Aronoff Center for the Arts opened, this unassuming spot might be easy to miss. (The owners, the Aracri family, must realize this, too, since they place a table with a copy of the menu on the sidewalk to entice passersby.) Once you're inside, the restaurant has a cozy feel with a small front room and a larger one in back, both filled with tables topped with the standard red-and-white tablecloths and candle-filled Chianti bottles.

Everything was simply perfect that first evening, from the courteous, Yugoslavian NBA-hopeful server to the freshly brewed coffee and homemade tiramisu. Trattoria, which began as a pizzeria, decided to forsake its roots: Today it offers a menu devoid of pizza or spaghetti with meatballs. Entrées feature seafood, veal, fresh pasta, chicken and aged Angus beef.

On this visit, my friend had the Lasagna ($15.95), mouth-watering slices of homemade pasta and sauce, ground beef and a blend of five cheeses. I ordered the Chicken Marsala ($16.95), a smoky, semi-sweet dish with mounds of sautéed onions and mushrooms.

The tiramisu was light with a much higher ratio of whipped cream to mascarpone cheese than most. (Of course, if you had the bowl of whipped cream in front of me, I would have been just as happy.)

When Mr. Husband and I made a return trip a few weeks later, however, we had a bit of a Jekyll-and-Hyde experience. The server/hostess was, well, let's say she was less than attentive on that quiet Monday evening. She passed us to take a drink order from a couple who arrived after us, but Mr. Husband took the situation into his own hands, requesting our beverages as she walked back by without a glance. I had decided on the Castello di Cacchiano Chianti Classico 1999 ($12) and he had a Peroni beer ($3.75).

"I thought Chianti was a red wine," I quizzed as the server set a glass of white in front of me. Apparently, she had pegged me as a Chardonnay.

Once we got over the drink hurdle, things improved. The breadbasket was brimming with wonderful little homemade chewy squares, and our appetizer, Calamari al Basilica ($7.95), was quite good, sautéed and served in a chunky tomato sauce with fresh basil. As we munched on the chewy ringlets, we noted that the establishment had no background music playing. Given the otherwise romantic ambiance, this seemed odd.

For an entrée Mr. Husband settled on the Filet Mignon ($24.95), a naked version of the Filetto di Manzo, which usually comes with sautéed in butter and thyme. It was an unusually large cut for a filet and cooked to a perfect medium rare. Served with a side of sautéed vegetables, he was pretty pleased with his Atkins-inspired choice. I made up for it, however.

After scarfing up as much bread as I could hold, I ordered a plate of Fettuccine Calabrese ($15.95), which was composed of fresh pasta, asparagus, prosciutto, red peppers and tomato sauce. The pasta was wonderful, and the asparagus had been sautéed before being added to the pasta, so it had a good crunch without being undercooked. The prosciutto, however, was anything but appealing. The grayish brown meat was served in thick, grisly hunks, which Mr. Husband removed to a bread plate for me.

As we started to dig into our meals, I realized we had not gotten the soup or salad that comes with each entrée. Remembering the delicate homemade chicken and spinach soup from my first visit, I wasn't going to let this slide. "Oh, didn't I ask you about that?" our waitress asked. "Well, I can give you a free dessert."

Nice try, but I wanted the soup. On that evening, it was vegetable and just as lovely as the zuppa del giorno on my first visit.

The Aracri family knows how to make good food from scratch, and if you enjoy the whole surly Italian restaurant server routine, Trattoria is likely to be an excellent fit for you every time. Me? I might not make it a regular stop, but I'll definitely keep it in the closet to bring out again next season. I just hope the NBA won't have picked off our Slav by then! ©

Trattoria Roma
Go: 609 Walnut St., Downtown

Call: 513-723-0220

Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; Dinner: 4:30-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday (closed Sundays, except when the Aronoff Center has a big show running)

Prices: Moderate to Expensive

Payment: Major credit cards

Red Meat Alternatives: Pasta and seafood dishes

Accessibility: Building is fully accessible and located on street level. Street parking and garage parking are available.

Grade: B