Lackluster Italian at Romano’s
Romano’s has been the cool kid in Anchorage’s Italian food scene for quite some time. Locally-owned, the place is a dated darling that boasts being Anchorage’s favorite Italian restaurant for an eight-year run, but it’s easy to see why they’ve come up short for the title recently.
The local staple is trying to keep things fresh in their home-style restaurant and cuisine. A visit to their website gives the impression that the atmosphere is lively and the floor plan open, with hip twists on Italian favorites, promising an “eruption of magical tastes in your month [sic] with every bite of food you take.”
In reality, the place is strikingly different from the stock photography used to build their site. Take for instance, the photo of a beautifully-plated caprese salad—that’s not on the menu.
The sizeable restaurant doesn’t take reservations. It was a 20-minute wait for a table for two on a busy Friday night. The time was happily spent in the lounge beneath the warm, inviting glow of the stained glass adorning the grand cherry-wood bar. While sidled up, we admired the antique-looking espresso machine and sipped on bargain-priced red wine.
The friendly hostess gave us a cozy booth, surrounded by other diners, one with a particularly infectious laugh. Our server took a while to come by, but we didn’t mind as we took in the décor. The dining room’s aged design and dim lighting is homey in a welcoming way—a hug from a great aunt with familiar, floral perfume—making it easy to see why multiple generations of no-fuss Alaskans sat around us.
Our server was timid, only saying the words necessary for her to take our order for the smoked salmon and artichoke dip appetizer ($11), the Romano’s special pizza ($13.95), and the shrimp Toscana ($18.95).
The starter arrived after another 20 minutes, accompanied by a basket of bread and a saucer with a mix of dried herbs and a healthy drizzle of olive oil. The bread was fresh and warm; pairing better with the dip than the crusty garlic bread the dish came with. The dip wasn’t bad either—extra creamy and heavy on the cheese—leaving us to search for its namesake ingredients.
The charm wore off quickly after that, while waiting nearly an hour for our entrees. It vanished when the only thing my guest’s main course had in common with his original order was that it was a pizza. Not one to complain, he ate it anyway. The portions were huge and I was grateful after waiting so long. My pasta came heaped in a bowl, with characterless shrimp and a flat tomato cream sauce, and I ate nearly all of it.
By the time we finished, the staff was cleaning up. Another server, much the veteran to ours, apologized to his customers for the wait, explaining they were having issues in the kitchen. Our server left our check with a peep of thanks and we didn’t hear from her again.
Perhaps they had an off night, I thought, when we returned on a weeknight several days later. It was quieter, so we decided to grab drinks and a table in the bar, something the restaurant sings its own praises about on their website.
After getting drinks from the bar, yet again, we waited. The bartender doubled as the server for the entire lounge area, while also making drinks for the dining room. When she finally made her way to our table, we ordered the Caesar salad ($8.95) to start. To test them against our previous experience, I ordered the chicken saltimbocca ($18.95), a dish my grandmother made growing up. My dining partner ordered the penne al forno ($16.95), which is baked pasta with sausage, tomatoes, cream and cheese. He asked them to hold the sun-dried tomatoes, and we both wondered if they’d get it right.
Our first bites were delivered to our table by a dining room server, and he told us the names of the herbs and spices while he poured the olive oil onto the plate with a trained hand. The bread was just as good as before, not needing the oil or butter to add flavor. The salad was without question the most delightful plate in either meal. The dressing was flavorful, the lettuce was crisp and the layers of flavor were skillfully balanced. It gave me hope for the rest. Just as we finished our salad, the main course was served.
Saltimbocca is typically made with veal, but chicken saltimbocca is its down-home cousin. Made by pounding chicken breasts into thin pieces, then covering them with prosciutto and sage leaves before roasting or sautéing, saltimbocca highlights the salty meat and the distinct, sometimes peppery, herb. Sadly, the fuzzy, grey-green sage was completely absent in the version I was served, allowing the salt-cured meat to dominate the plate.
As disappointed as I was, left longing for a taste of home, my guest was even more dissatisfied. While the sauce was oily from the sausage, it had a good flavor even without the sundried tomatoes. None of this mattered though, as it topped pasta that was overcooked to the point where it was nothing more than mush in your mouth. For me, there is no greater blunder.
The restaurant described on Romano’s website doesn’t exist, and if it did, it must have been quite some time ago. Once tried-and-true, the homespun dishes now try too hard to be upscale fare. Servers wear a uniform of white, collared shirts and black pants, but the service doesn’t match the standards affiliated with that kind of dress code.
However, Romano’s isn’t going anywhere. It’ll still be the family-friendly place to host large dinner gatherings and the spot teenagers will hit before high-school dances. For many, eating at Romano’s has become a tradition, but it’s a tradition I don’t look forward to.
Published in the Anchorage Press on October 29, 2015.
2415 C St.
Monday - Friday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday & Sunday 1 p.m. to 10 p.m.