A Taste of Sicily
4770 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield
Dinner: Tues.-Sat., 5-10 p.m.; Sun., 5-9 p.m.
Pesce, Pollo, Carne (Fish, Chicken, Meat): $15.95-$24.95
Dolci (Desserts): $5.25-$5.95
BYOB ($2.50 per glass usage fee). Nonsmoking.
Reservations only; call at least a week in advance.
*Not wheelchair accessible
We had heard the rumblings, heard the second-hand sources. We’d seen the once-innocuous self-camouflaging exterior transformed by a fresh coat of pumpkin-orange paint in what we assumed was Café Roma’s attempt to catch even the most tunnel-visioned of citizens traversing the broad, well-paved avenue. It took an innocent stroll on a clear, sparkling night, the kind of night that could be inserted into early fall if you didn’t have the orientation of a calendar, to nudge us into this unknown dining terrain, only to be body-blocked by the macro forces of economic supply-and-demand. Put bluntly: No reservation, no table.
Sure, we angled, we cajoled and (I confess) downright pleaded. Reservations had been booked and kept. The gatekeeper was unyielding. It was only fair. Taking defeat in stride, we made a reservation for the following night – my birthday.
And so we followed up on the commitment, and our evening at Café Roma progressed until a smartly dressed woman converted our private table into an impromptu party. "There’s no way I can’t intrude on your conversation," she declared. While I usually advocate chatting table to table, it had been a romantic special occasion so far. Since they haven’t invented the conversation blind, something akin to a laptop screen guard, rendering privacy in tight spaces, what could we do but be courteous? Any resistance quickly receded as we began to enjoy examining the unguarded soul of a true, opinionated foodie named Jean.
Without realizing my identity, Jean began pontificating about restaurant reviews. In short, she simply said she wants the bottom line, and to her that means cut the wordy noise about the architecture. On the other hand, made apparent to me by her hip sweater and youthful haircut, she’d like sufficient cues so she can coordinate her attire. In this case, it was as if the walls had ears, because the room seemed to have complied with Jean’s preferences. The sparsely decorated 800-square-foot room immediately subsumes you with a warm, rich mustard-yellow that intimately engulfs the psyche with a soothing, organic presence that could salve a migraine or lift a spirit. A few little trinkets and then nothing much matters once the polenta sticks and mussels arrive.
New Zealand mussels sautéed in tomatoes, garlic, extra-virgin olive oil and fresh herbs are kind of like potato chips once you get going. They melt in your mouth. You’ve had polenta, but odds are it’s never been molded into a stick and judiciously dusted with parmesan. Dip into a glistening, Sicilian marinara, not too sweet. I could nibble on them all night long. Salads are simple summery glories – the raw, the crisp, the au naturel. Anoint them with the elemental offerings: red-, white-wine or balsamic vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil. You’ll forget you usually slather on the ranch.
Like many people who love pasta, I experience a certain ennui when I twirl noodles in sauce. I could just about live on any of the pasta dishes we tried, but here are my favorites among pasta and its kin: pagleatelle ai gamberi (shrimp, white wine), pagleatelle alle cozza (mussels) or a more fiery puttanesca (capers, anchovies). Other favorites are rigatoni rustica (hot Sicilian sausage with fennel) or shrimp and scallops alla messinesa with pagleatelle; and then there’s rigatoni in a spicy light sauce with lemon zest.
"I cook when you order," stresses chef/owner Domenico Aliberto. "It’s like buying the groceries and eating in your own house, only I make the pasta fresh." Even the soups – including Tuscany-style white bean and cream of butternut squash – are made in small quantities intended for one night’s consumption only. The chef has a special spoon with tiny holes to break the meat down, rendering it tactilely unperceivable, as fine as can be for a Sicilian lasagne unlike any I’m used to. Soft, luxurious noodles are made with semolina instead of flour "already al dente because I make them myself," Aliberto notes. Such delicate flavors have a tranquilizing effect on the palate. This is a recipe inherited from his father, Vencenzo. It features a little béchamel and a light, soulful marinara – a recipe lost to time.
Nightly specials are designed to prevent menu inertia: gnocchi with fresh tomato and basil; chicken with spicy lemon sauce; rigatoni with spicy artichoke in a light-red sauce, eggplant parmesan. Aliberto chuckles. "I make all these strange things. Sicilian-style wild boar with rosemary and red wine. Or duck ragoût. I have a list of regulars who ask me to call them a week in advance if I’m serving their favorite; if I don’t, they get mad."
"Roma was born in 2005 as a simple coffee shop with tons of desserts," roars Aliberto of the restaurant, which was named "Roma" instead of "Sicily" because the owners thought it would be easier for Americans to pronounce. American idioms are wrapped in a thick Sicilian accent as Aliberto reels off a list of goodies that make me laugh and salivate simultaneously. "A pineapple torte iz-za just the bomb," he says recalling a Christmas Eve all-nighter, working like a college kid cramming for exams, turning out Santa Sophia tarts, cannoli and beignet strudel. "Not to make millions of dollars," he reminded me, but because he loves to bake. These are just the sort of desserts that have made Sicily famous for its sweet tooth. Aliberto reveals he had been dreaming about opening a patisseria most of his life, cooking beside his father as a kid, through culinary school and chef stints in Costa Rica and Mexico. But dreams are willy-nilly, even with 30 homemade desserts in a window display case in Bloomfield, Pittsburgh’s "Little Italy." The cafe was going well, but they were losing money.
"Losing, losing, losing," he cites mournfully. If you bake, you know one person cannot achieve sufficient economies of scale. If not for the love of dough and sugar, you’re better off buying your goodies at a reputable bakery. Aliberto decided, "Well, I can cook. Let’s cook."
Michelle, Aliberto’s wife, runs the front of the house like a proud mother introducing her children to you. She had to twist my arm to try the tiramisù. Leave your preconceptions of a tired cliché behind for a springy concoction of lady fingers soaked in coffee and brandy, perfumed with mascarpone (from the new Bel Gioioso, a factory that makes Italian cheese in Wisconsin), all dusted with cocoa powder. There is a synchronicity in its lingering aroma, and I realize that dessert can be a way of ending a meal with the same excitement with which you began. Roma’s original mission (coffee and lush desserts) guarantees impressive finales, from eatable chocolate/orange cups filled with chocolate mousse and orange segments, to fruit tarts and my favorite – cannoli – cloyingly crisp and crunchy filled with an ethereal chocolate or vanilla cream.
In Bloomfield, a colorful neighborhood where you can still watch ladies in bib aprons roll out ravioli, where gnarled old men on stoops play cards and feed pigeons, and church bells ring often, the only thing that has been missing for a few years is an authentic little Sicilian eatery like this. In the slag-drag August sun, when the city’s heat makes your rayons cling, a reservation at Domenico Aliberto’s Café Roma could easily be the first place you think of for a plate of linguine with New Zealand mussels, birthday or not.
Each month, Deborah McDonald jump-starts appetites with lively restaurant reviews that scrutinize who’s cooking what and where. She works anonymously, visiting each restaurant at least twice before writing her column.
Do you know of a restaurant you’d like to have reviewed? E-mail Deborah.