Review: What's old is new at Detroit's Amore da Roma

Aug 29, 2018 at 1:00 am
Veal scaloppine à la limone.
Veal scaloppine à la limone. Tom Perkins

"Built 1890, est. 2017," winks the website of Amore da Roma in Eastern Market. With that slogan, chef-owner Guy Pelino indicates that he's dedicated to continuing the traditions of Detroit's oldest restaurant, the Roma Café, which closed last summer after 127 continuous years and reopened six months later as Amore, with the same chef (himself), the same menu, and mostly the same staff.

Needless to say, the venerable Roma was old. Before it became a restaurant in 1890, the Roma building was a boarding house for farmers bringing their produce to market by horse and wagon.

Amore under Pelino is using fresh meats and vegetables now instead of the frozen versions of the old regime. The manager chuckled at the idea that the old owner bought frozen vegetables from a food service, when Eastern Market lay at his feet. Pelino gave the place a partial refurbishing, with a new ceiling that looks like old-time tin but is actually plastic. Still, the menu and the time-honored décor pull the diner into a pleasant time warp.

Three parmigianas and seven scaloppines, spaghetti with "our famous meat sauce (add meatballs $3)," lasagne and big tubes of cannelloni, frog legs — it all returns you to the days of red-checked tablecloths and a candle stuck in a Chianti bottle. Not literally, but you know the kind of vintage, American-adapted Italian menu I'm talking about. Profiling alert: Amore seems to attract suburban customers who might have been taken to the Roma for special occasions in their youth.

I was served some fine dishes at Amore, and a cocktail straight out of 2018. The latter was a basil Limoncello mule in the regulation copper mug, tart and refreshing. The espresso martini is advertised as containing "powdered coca," but I'm sure that's a typo.

Keeping the old in old-school, diners are first brought a loaf of warm bread with good butter. Similarly, a salad or soup comes with the entrées; you don't have to pay separately. We enjoyed a thick, peppery Italian wedding soup; minestrone is of course the other option.

Two companions went doctrinal and ordered veal scaloppine à la limone and the house fettuccine with famous Roma meat sauce. The veal was abundant and tender, of course, with lots of lemony sauce. I personally couldn't tell what might have made the winey meat sauce famous, other than lots of beef and mushrooms, but said companion enjoyed it over wide housemade noodles.

I ordered perch meunière, a simple preparation in a lemon-butter sauce, and liked it; there was tartar sauce served on the side. A fourth friend loved the scallops special: The beasts were smoky and cooked in olive oil rather than butter, with garlicky vegetables.

The kitchen makes its own tiramisu and cannoli, but we ordered what turned out to be a rather boring spumoni from Alinosi.

(Ancient story from Puglia, a restaurant in New York's Little Italy, 1970s:

Me: "Spumoni? Is that the one with cherries?"

Waitress: "Hon, you won't find cherries anymore, not even in Long Island.")

Cherry-free and better than spumoni were a thin, rich wedge of flourless chocolate cake and a tall, light lemon torte. And the waitress could have called me "hon" but used "sweetie" and "princess" instead.

Again daring to be old-hat, the restaurant offers guests a flyer outlining different discounts for different days of the week: Wine Wednesday, Tuesday First Responders Night, Sunday brunch with build-your-own Bloody Mary bar.

I cannot endorse the $21 Monday buffet, about which the less said the better. I should have known; I have eaten from steam trays before. It's as if a different cook were employed just for Mondays.

Let's just say that the "caprese station" consists of mozzarella balls mixed with minced tomato, carrot, and onion (no basil); that the salad is very wet; that the chicken cacciatore has a watery, tasteless sauce; that the veal in the parmigiana is thoroughly hidden by heavy breading. The trays do include some sort of beef (the week I went it was meatloaf), mashed potatoes, and grape leaves — in case you didn't come to Amore for Italian food. We ate a lot of tiramisu from Milano Bakery to assuage our feelings.

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