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Café Roma offers more affordable eats in historic Tejon building 

Appetite

click to enlarge Fried seafood and a crisp, clean cocktail. - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • Fried seafood and a crisp, clean cocktail.

With minimal fanfare, Paris Crepe owner Wahid Hafsaoui has switched the concept for neighboring Couture's Bistro from French to Italian, adopting the name Café Roma. But it seems like not a lot has changed. The brick wall at the entryway still bears the metal Couture's logo, a nod to the century-old local dry cleaner/laundromat from which it took its name. The massively long space still sports Carol Cromie's Van Gogh reproductions and a Parisian street-scene mural.

A few things have changed here, though, the price point changing most drastically — Roma is significantly more affordable than Couture's was. Nothing on the menu breaches the $20 line, a contrast to nearly $30 dishes prior. Good luck finding a lamb shank as nicely cooked as that Hafsaoui is offering for less than $15, one of the highest prices on the menu.

But price doesn't matter if the food isn't good. Roma's meatballs come tender and heavily seasoned, paired as an appetizer with crispy wedges of under-salted fried polenta. The flavors come together well, but this plate's stronger in the textural department.

Also noteworthy, the fritto misto sees a mix of seafood dredged in gluten-free-friendly rice flour and fried, paired with competent cocktail sauce and lemon aioli. But the centimeter-or-less chunks are difficult to wrangle with a fork. And it's hard to tell what's on the plate beyond squid, revealed by tasty telltale tentacles. To be frank, my favorite meal-opener is the arugula salad, a dead-simple pile of fresh greens with lemon vinaigrette and Parmigiano Reggiano. It's a perfect illustration of Italian cuisine's focus on fresh ingredients prepared simply and proportioned meticulously.

Moving on to the main course, the mushroom and herb risotto stands out. It's a big plate of creamy goodness, made deeply savory by tender mushrooms. Dishes like this make it a pleasure to eat healthy. Also on the pasta menu, the lobster ravioli comes from Denver's Pappardelle, served up in a creamy Parmigiano Reggiano sauce. My ravioli show up hard on the edges, and though the filling isn't Maine fresh, it's sweet and pleasant enough.

Rich, tender short ribs get a five-hour braise in their own juices before joining a classic tomato sauce atop creamy polenta. The lamb shank's also braised until it's falling off the bone, then served with a cinnamon-spiked sauce atop herbed mashed potatoes. Both dishes look similar on the menu and on the plate, with any difference coming out in spicing and sauce. And neither of them is a bad choice.

For dessert, the limoncello tiramisu stands out as a unique take on the traditional, soaking ladyfingers in limoncello instead of espresso. Texture doesn't suffer for the swap, and the taste brings a touch of summer even during a March blizzard.

As for drinks, Roma's cocktail list prominently features some classic Italian aperitifs. Try an Americano, a predecessor to the Negroni. Club soda, Campari and sweet vermouth make for a clean drink with a faint bitterness. For something fruitier, a Contessa sees gin mixed with Aperol and sweet vermouth, garnished with orange wedges for a bright and refreshing drink. As for the beer menu, it's all Bristol — that's not a bad thing, per se, but next to Italian cocktail classics, this list looks complacent and non-distinguishing.

All told, Café Roma makes good food in a pretty space, whether it differs much from its predecessor or not.

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