SUSAN CHAITYN LEBOVITS of the Boston Globe wrote:
Tucked away in the Newton village of Nonantum is Ristorante Vecchia Roma, which has been run by Benedetto Cerasani and his wife, Anna, since 1996. Born and raised in Italy, Cerasani acts as the executive (and only) chef, serving up dishes from Rome, where he attended cooking school, Milan and Tuscany where he worked, and his mother's kitchen in Abruzzi.
Cerasani has one prep cook, one dishwasher, and one waiter, so you'll often see him dart out of the kitchen with plate in hand to deliver one of his creations. He favors basic ingredients like fresh parsley, garlic, rosemary, sage, oregano, and basil. Produce is purchased daily.
"We're a small restaurant and really cater to our customers to make sure their food is prepared the way they like it," said Anna Cerasani. "We want people to have a feeling of home."
She was born in Italy and moved to the United States at the age of 4. Italian was her first language and she would often spend vacations with her relatives in Italy, which is how she met Benedetto. They lived in Italy for three years, until their first son was born.
"Benedetto is from a small farm town and we decided to come back to the United States where I have family," said Anna. "He's the brains behind the kitchen, and I do the books and waitress.
Among their most popular dishes is the zuppe de pesche, a fish stew with half a lobster, mussels, clams, calamari, shrimp, and tilapia in a light tomato sauce ($32), and festonata del convento, which has parpadella (extra wide fettuccini) with roasted peppers, eggplant, onions, zucchini, and mushrooms in a fresh cherry tomato sauce. ($15).
On a recent Tuesday evening at Ristorante Vecchia Roma, over the buzz of diners, I heard familiar music in the background and soon realized that many songs were popular American tunes being sung in Italian. We were brought a basket of peasant bread and black olive tapenade, a popular Mediterranean spread made of olives, capers, and olive oil. We started with the tartine with melon and prosciutto ($11) an appetizer of ripe cantaloupe and paper-thin prosciutto drizzled with a puree of boiled mint leaves and olive oil. It was a perfect combination of sweet and salty.
Next was the fagioli all' uccelletto, cannelloni beans sautéed in olive oil, onions, pancetta, and basil in a spicy plum tomato sauce ($11). It was as tasty alone as it was on the bread. We also tried the gnocchi alla Romana, baked with sage, olive oil, and parmesan ($13). Unlike traditional marble-sized dumplings often made from potato, these were round, 2 inches in diameter, and made from semolina (wheat).
Not to be missed is the melanzane ripiene, a rolled eggplant filled with fresh ricotta, smoked and fresh mozzarella, in a plum tomato sauce ($11). It was delicious, and we reached for the basket of bread to mop up the sauce.
For years Ristorante Vecchia Roma had seating for 22 but last May it expanded. The spot can now accommodate 46 guests.
Since there is no tap water served (you can order Pellegrino sparkling water and Panna still water from Tuscany at $4 per 1 litre bottle), you might consider a glass of wine. Bottles range from a 2006 Vina Rossi Di Majo, Norante ($23) to a 2001 Ricasoli Casalferro Sangiovese Merlot ($95.) I was put off by the "no tap water" rule, which our waiter explained had been issued for two reasons: no ice maker or kitchen space to house carafes, and keeping the tradition of Italy, where bottled mineral water is served.
Our first main course was shrimp fra diavolo with linguini, a wonderfully spicy homemade pasta with sautéed shrimp ($ 24). The pollo o vitello saltimbocca - chicken (or veal) with prosciutto, mushrooms, and sage in a garlic white wine sauce - was also good but a tad salty. It came with sautéed broccoli and hand-cut potatoes baked to perfection ($18). We also had the risotto al tartufo, arborio rice with pan-seared ribeye steak and shallots, finished with Parmesan cheese and white truffle oil ($19). This was my least favorite dish, as I found it to be too oily and not a tremendous amount of flavor.
I had the rigatoni all Abruzzese, ($16) pasta with sautéed onions, peas, and mini-meatballs in a light ricotta plum tomato sauce. I later learned that this is a recipe from Benedetto Cerasani's mother .
The detail to each dish and the attentive waiter made this family-run place worthy of another visit. The only place where they fell short was in the desserts, which are flown in frozen from Italy.
We ended the night with a cappuccino that arrived with a beautiful cocoa fleur-de-lis. It may not be Italy, but for the evening, you can certainly pretend.
SUSAN CHAITYN LEBOVITS
One of the pleasures of writing reviews for this site is the occasional discovery of a "perfect" hidden gem--one that not only is completely unknown to the general public, but also ranks among the best in its class for food. And so it goes with Vecchia Roma, a charming little Italian dining spot in the Nonantum section of Newton that we believe rivals many of the restaurants in the North End of Boston.
Vecchia Roma is easy to miss, as it is one of many storefronts along Watertown Street in Nonantum, a heavily Italian section of Newton that is also known as "The Lake" to locals. The restaurant consists of two rooms: The left room (where diners enter) is dark and rather romantic, with exposed brick and low lights adding much in the way of atmosphere; the right room is a bit brighter and has the feel of an Italian cottage, with pictures and lamps on the pastel-colored walls, an attractive tile floor, and a large curtain stretched along the front window.
The owner and executive chef of Vecchia Roma, who hails from the Abruzzi region of Italy, used to be the head chef at two top restaurants in the North End and went to culinary school in Rome, so the food served at this restaurant is the real deal. The eggplant melanzane appetizer, for instance, is simply extraordinary here, with a sweet, creamy ricotta filling that contrasts perfectly with the smoky mozzarella cheese and the smooth texture of the eggplant. The salads are also excellent, with a delightful caesar salad leading the way, as well as a delicious salad option that includes pieces of cod mixed with roasted red peppers and greens in a mild lemon sauce.
Entrees at Vecchia Roma include a gnocchi dish with tender pasta pillows in an excellent red sauce; an outstanding lasagna made with that same sweet ricotta cheese; a deliciously sticky and creamy risotto with chicken and mushrooms in a marsala wine sauce; an impressive veal saltimbocca in a garlic white wine sauce; a homemade ravioli dish with porcini mushrooms, asparagus, and sage in a white wine sauce; and a wonderful roast pork stuffed with sausage, asiago cheese, and artichokes in a rich and hearty brown sauce. And for diners who have room, the desserts at Vecchia Roma are brought in from Italy and include a positively sinful chocolate fondant (lava cake), a similarly rich bomba (which includes chocolate and vanilla ice cream), and a very nice profiterole (cream puff). Finally, for those who like wine, Vecchia Roma has an extensive list that includes some good reds and whites from Italy.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Vecchia Roma may be one of the best Italian restaurants in the Boston area that nobody has ever heard about; in some ways, it is the ultimate hidden gem, with outstanding food, little in the way of crowds, terrific prices for the type of food offered, and easy street parking out front. If you like Italian food (and who doesn't?), try not to miss this one.
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