Counter Culture: Rustic pizza and al-dente pasta at Roma II

02/21/2014 12:00 AM

02/19/2014 10:58 AM

Restaurants come and go, and the reasons for their departures are varied. Tastes and demographics change and business falls off, the competition becomes too hot, rent and other expenses rise, the owners retire. Yet other restaurants seem to go on forever, such as Roma Pizzeria II, which will celebrate 33 years in April.

Lunch pal Donn Reiners and I were discussing this phenomenon in a booth inside the restaurant, as determined-looking waitresses speaking to each other in Italian dashed here and there, delivering bowls of hearty minestrone, fragrant pizzas and steaming pasta to the talkative customers packing the energized dining room.

Reiners retired from a career of designing golf courses and residential communities such as Serrano in El Dorado Hills and Stanford Ranch in Rocklin. These days, he’s a photographer and horticulturist specializing in geraniums and cactuses.

“My wife and I have been coming here since it opened,” he said. “It’s because of the consistency, the taste of the food, and the ambiance. It’s no frills and a lot of fun.”

Not much has changed over the decades, and the regulars like it that way.

Decor-wise, there’s the same wood paneling and overhead fans, the same banquette seating and tables. An Italian-landscape mural covers part of one wall, framed photos dominate another, and eight chairs are lined up at the wine bar.

The menu reflects the cooking of southern Italy and looks about the same, too, perhaps more concise, with a line in the promotional text that actually means something: “Great-tasting food at affordable prices.” The lunch specials are a deal at $7 to $9 – five kinds of pasta (with garlic bread and soup or salad) and sandwiches (Italian sausage, meatball, sub and vegetarian).

Beyond those are more pasta dishes (spaghetti, penne, ravioli, tortellini, lasagna and cannelloni, $6.95 to $12.95), salads and soup. A note on the menu informs, “We make the meatballs, lasagna, cannelloni, ravioli and our own soups on the premises.” The tomato sauce and the basil pesto are made in house, too.

Three of the four versions of spaghetti involve combinations of olive oil, garlic, anchovies, capers, olives and red pepper flakes; the fourth is with tomato sauce. You can ask for any of the pastas to be baked in the oven and served in casseroles, a style that’s all but vanished. There’s a certain nostalgic, homey quality to the ramekin of meat sauce, melted mozzarella and pasta, baked until bubbly. Add meatballs or Italian sausages and you’ve got something special.

We ordered an Italian sausage sandwich on a roll; a “half and half” plate of turkey-spinach-Romano cheese ravioli with red sauce, and penne with pesto; and two meatballs.

The sausages were split in half and covered in sautéed peppers and onions, tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese, heaped on a grilled roll. Cooked-to-order ravioli and penne were chewy-soft, the basil pesto especially rich in taste and texture. Tomato sauce-covered homemade meatballs were big and old-school dense, weighty and packed with flavor.

Next, we cruised the lengthy menu of pizzas, long a personal favorite ($11 to $28). The chewy, yeasty, hand-thrown crust is notoriously heavy with gooey mozzarella and toppings. Our go-to is Italian sausage, mushrooms, spinach, olives, garlic and jalapeño pepper, topped with a combo of tomato sauce and pesto.

In California, at least, pizza has trended toward thinner crusts topped in unexpected ways (pulled pork, salmon), with sauces in a palette of colors. Though the rustic, hand-tossed pie is still the centerpiece at Roma II, the restaurant recently started a “pizza of the month” program. The point: to show it can compete with more modern renditions. Toppings include duck, prosciutto, pancetta, shrimp, fennel, figs, dried cranberries, arugula, portobello mushrooms and asparagus, and asiago, manchego and feta cheeses.

Donn and I were way too full for pizza, so I brought a pepperoni-mushroom back to the office and asked for comments. They included these:

“If you go into this pizza expecting to get your fingers greasy, you won’t be disappointed. Generous with the cheese. The crust had a good chewy texture with a satisfying crunch.”

“Nice chewy crust, toppings fine, well-spiced, would prefer a little more sauce.”

“Spicy, good crust.”

On the way out, we stopped at the open kitchen, where pots full of sauces quietly bubbled on oven burners, and countermen wielded wood paddles to pull pizzas out of the oven. There, owner Maria Guerrera stirred a steaming pot of pasta and took a minute to chat.

“We have customers who have been coming for many years,” she said. “They brought their children, and now their children are married and bring their own children.”

The most satisfying part of it all? “It’s the people,” she said. “They make me feel good when they come in.”

Now that’s a burger

The hamburger is seemingly simple in concept, but deceptively complex in execution. The variables that go into making it can expand exponentially, and the choices and considerations add up quickly.

When we’re in the mood for a straightforward burger, we go to Chargin’s Bar & Grill in east Sacramento. The burger is cooked on an iron griddle, and is big and juicy and just a little greasy. It’s plopped on a perfectly sized soft-chewy bun from Bella Bru bakery, with raw onion, lettuce, tomato and pickle chips ($7). Add cheese for an extra 50 cent, and add avocado and bacon to that for $1 more. Sides are homemade potato salad and coleslaw.

We get the ultimate version and heap coleslaw on top of those other condiments. The result is a double handful of delight, crunchy and soft, warm and delicious, with juices running down the fingers and on to the plate. Get it from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Chargin’s is at 4900 J St., Sacramento; (916) 454-1524.

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