When I was growing up, going out to dinner as a family often turned into a complicated struggle. We could never agree on where to go -- some place was too slow, another too expensive. Discussions would sometimes break down, and the yelling would begin. In our worst moments, family dinners out were cancelled altogether. My dad would turn the car around, take us back home and make eggs for dinner. Even though this only happened a few times, it always seemed worse than a whole week without television.
I bet things would have been a lot easier if we could have gone to Roman Villa. Small and unassuming, it's one of this town's oldest and most successful restaurants. In one of this country's toughest businesses, Roman Villa has thrived at the same location for 43 years, just north of Fillmore on Nevada. Although the corner has a bit of urban grittiness, the inside is warm and inviting. Little has changed since it opened in 1961; the cozy eatery has only 14 tables and a few barrel stools surrounding a horseshoe counter up front. Wicker basket-bottomed Chianti bottles, many of which have been hanging there since the 1960s, adorn knotty-pine-paneled walls. Soft light and a buzzing, partially open kitchen complete the classic Italian-American mood.
This is a family operation, with three generations of women running the show: Grandma Lena Biondi, who works the front on Fridays and Saturdays; daughter Carla; and granddaughter Amber. More than just family run, Roman Villa is also family friendly. They welcome children of all ages, offer smaller portions for smaller appetites, and immortalize the little ones by slapping their photo on one of many bulletin boards covered by pictures of regular customers' children.
Equally important, you won't have to wait long for relief when you come in with a hungry family. Every meal begins with a salad starter, or, for the next few months, Roman Villa's homemade, vegetarian minestrone soup. As much as I liked the salad, the warm, comforting soup is outstanding and makes the perfect match for a snowy night.
The expansive menu will also make sure that the ones you love get the food they want. Rigatoni, mostaccioli and linguini are available with a choice of butter, tomato, meat, mushroom or clam sauce. I haven't tried them all yet, but the marinara and the Bolognese are both excellent, sweet from the tomatoes yet boasting a strong backbone. Also good are the homemade ravioli ($10.50), big and doughy and filled with a custom mix of ground meats and fresh cheese.
Among many attractive choices, Roman Villa's own baked tortellacci ($10.50) stands head and shoulders above its pasta peers. Think tortellini, but about three-times bigger, filled with fresh spinach and a creamy mix of mozzarella and ricotta. Formed into a ring in a small ceramic dish, these little treasure chests are covered with marinara and cream. Served piping hot, the combination of the pink sauce and gooey cheese is simply divine.
Another standout is the homemade Italian sausage. For better or worse, I have eaten a lot of links in my time, and Roman Villa's are easily among the finest. Each one is long and plump, boasting a perfect blend of sweetness and spiciness. Why they don't build a dish around these beauties is beyond me, but you can enjoy this excellent sausage with just about any of the noodle dishes or as a pizza topping.
Speaking of pizzas, Roman Villa's are delicious and surely another reason for their enduring success. They hand-toss the dough nice and thin, douse it with some of their sweet tomato sauce, and pile up the cheese and toppings to mountainous proportions. Fired in a hot oven, the dough bakes up to a tasty, crispy crust that capably cradles the heavy, bubbling top. Get a large ($8.50) to feed a crowd on a budget, or try a small ($7.25) as a warm and crunchy start to an extended meal.
Even if you don't go with your family, you'll get treated like you're part of Roman Villa's. They take time to get to know their customers, and offer first-rate service without being overbearing. Our server, Sarah, was knowledgeable, friendly and remarkably efficient, thanks in part to an energetic kitchen staff that knows how to put food on the table.
More than just a Colorado Springs institution, Roman Villa is a great place to get a meal. The beauty of Roman Villa, and likely the secret to their success, is that they know how to keep it simple. It's a small, family restaurant that does a great job of being exactly what it wants to be: a place you can come on your own, on a date, or with the whole family and be certain to get satisfying food, good value and great service. Congratulations on your first 43 years, and may you keep on giving the people what they want for at least three more generations.
-- David Torres-Rouff
3005 N. Nevada Ave.
Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday, from 5 p.m.