One of the things I love the most about my work is learning the stories behind every place I visit. Don't get me wrong; I always love trying the food. But it is the story I am most interested in. Every place has its own tale to tell, one that is unique to it alone. Whether that be in a colorful history, quirky clientele, or particularly dynamic chef, uncovering each of these stories is like putting together the pieces of a puzzle without knowing what the picture will look like once you've finished. My job is to describe that picture.
Roma Cafe in Eastern Market is the oldest restaurant in Detroit. Manager Janet Sossi Belcoure is also fairly confident that it is the oldest still-operating restaurant in the country (there are taverns that are older, but no restaurants). It originally was a boarding house for farmers coming to the market, where they could lodge for the night and receive a hot meal. Those hot meals, cooked by Mrs. Marazza, were so good that eventually some of the boarders convinced her to open up a restaurant, which she did in 1890. The Sossi family has owned the restaurant since 1918 and continues its traditions through the generations.
After over 120 years of operation, you can imagine this place has a lot of stories. Many lives have passed through those doors, and they even have their own resident ghost (don't worry, he's mostly harmless so long as you don't mind the occasional swinging door or chilly draft). There is a picture on the wall taken the day after Prohibition was repealed, snapped in the very same bar the picture is currently displayed. This used to be one of the Purple Gang's haunts, the most ruthless crime syndicate in the country during Prohibition who controlled the largest thoroughfare for bootlegged liquor coming into the country from Canada. Al Capone himself was at the mercy of the Purples for his own whiskey trade.
Consider your own fascination with iconic cultural artifacts like the Godfather, Goodfellas or The Sopranos. There is a certain kind of fascination we have with those old-time gangsters, a romanticization of that glamorous life of powerful crime families with endless wealth and reach, who live by their own laws, almost untouchable. It's the power, the violence, the money, the fame that fascinate us. It is the lawlessness, the forbidden nature -- the kind of things we can only fantasize about as law-abiding citizens. Now consider the places these men -- men whose power reached into the very highest branches of law and government -- spent most of their time. We have this image in our heads of old-school gangsters sitting around a red-and-white checkered tablecloth-draped table puffing away on expensive Cuban cigars, drinking bourbon or wine and eating pasta, Tommy guns resting quietly at their sides. Roma Cafe is the kind of place where this actually happened. Walking through the front doors you are walking the same steps that Abe Bernstein himself once took. Who needs ghosts?
This place is rich with history, with stories of Detroit and its people spanning more than a century. The Sossi family decided to stay in this location to retain its history, even when so many other places decided to leave the city. "Part of what is most unique about us is that we're a throwback to a time gone by," Jan says. "We're one of the last holdouts of Detroit history; inside it's like walking in to the same place it was 80 years ago -- not much has changed since then." The hand-carved cherry oak bar is older even than the restaurant itself, and the decor is past the point of being dated to the point of being nostalgic. They also retain much of the old world European charm that was the trademark of many of these restaurants owned and operated by first generation immigrant families: the aged waiters all wear full tuxedos and are career servers, who have made a life and supported their families in this business rather than seeing it as a vehicle to get somewhere else. Jan has one server who has been here 28 years, and another who just retired after 36. Her chef, Mike Saaed, has been with them for over 30 years. Harry the bartender/songbird is 74 years old and always sings "Happy Birthday" to anyone celebrating; Jan says he one of the hardest working people on staff. They are also one of the only Union restaurants in the area (Sinbad's being the other), so the employees all have health care and insurance.
And most of her customers are returning regulars from several generations of returning regulars. While many restaurants have that homey charm of knowing the clientele by name and knowing about their jobs and families, at Roma Cafe these people are actually friends. As in, they go to each other's houses, celebrate holidays and birthdays together (even if it's at the restaurant, which is the social epicenter)...not merely familiarity but real friendship. Jan remembers when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and a group of her friends -- customers from the restaurant -- took her out before BOTH of her surgeries. "I'm very blessed to be in this industry and have so many close friends," Jan says, and I notice that her eyes are just the tiniest bit wet. "We are a family here," she continues. "Everybody looks out for each other, and I approach my customers the same way. Nowadays people are moving around so much, everyone needs somewhere to go where they can have a family."
As the perennial stray dog, I certainly appreciate a place that can create that sense of community, and in the few hours I was there I immediately felt like I had been welcomed home. What I observed during my visit was truly a family feel -- Jan and her staff talking to Jack, a 3-days-a-week-for-35-years regular, all poking fun at each other, exhibiting the kind of camaraderie you have with someone after many years of knowing them. Rhonda, a friend of Jack's, was also there showing off wedding pictures -- a wedding I missed when holed up with food poisoning. Yep -- I've known Rhonda for years and have had many long, deep conversations with her, much to the chagrin of my close friend Sarah (Rhonda's daughter) who would usually just roll her eyes and threaten to separate us. Within minutes we were all talking over each other: "How do you know Rhonda?" "Oh, we go way back -- don't we?" "I know her through my cousin Nancy." "Oh yeah? Hey Rhonda, have I met Nancy?" "No, but she introduced me to Jim." "They were all here for her bachelorette party." "Oh I know all about THAT, I saw the pictures!" "Sarah showed you the pictures?!?" ...and so on.
But this is an old-school Italian restaurant, hearkening back to a time when that actually meant something, and there's one thing that I still haven't talked about: the food. See, I got so caught up in the overall experience that I overlooked part of the place-people-food trifecta. For the Detroit Restaurant Week preview, I got to sample some of their very classic Italian-American dishes -- hearty, heartfelt foods that make you think of a little old grandma stirring steaming pots half the size of her in the kitchen, muttering to herself in Italian because she refuses to speak English even though she understands it perfectly well. The cuisine is inspired by both northern and southern Italy (Jan's mom is Sicilian and her dad is from near the Swiss-Italian border), so there is a wide range of what can be considered classic Italian-American cuisine. Everyone has their favorites but based on an unofficial Facebook poll it sounds like the perch and the meat sauce are the biggest wins (Jan promises they have some of the best perch in the city). Being so close to Eastern Market they always have the freshest products available practically right off the truck, and if they run out they just walk down Russell St. to get more.
This isn't a terribly trendy place (unless you consider the current rising trend of "old is the new new"). They won't have all the latest fad liqueurs but they do pride themselves on their service: if there is something you want to drink and bygod you're going to come in and drink it, they will order it for you. One customer drinks Nocello, a walnut/hazelnut-flavored Italian liqueur (the alcohol equivalent to Nutella), and Jan swears he's the only one who drinks it. Another customer, a surgeon, requests Lagavulin -- a single-malt Scotch that costs them $78/bottle just to buy. But both of these customers are regulars and these are their drinks when they come in, so Jan makes sure she keeps them in stock. "We are in a people-serving industry so that's what we do."
Jan also keeps a very strong wine list with a lot of Italian wines and common favorites (which she updates regularly for changing times and tastes), but what caught MY eye was the Col Solare, a wine out of Columbia Valley made in collaboration with famed Italian winemaker Marchese Piero Antinori. It's an Old World-meets-New World wine that is absolutely mind-blowing, a wee bit pricey at $110/bottle (pretty average for this label) but my hands-down all-time favorite. If you have expensive tastes and the bankroll to support them, they've got some very nice Barolos, Brunellos, and Amarones to choose from -- big, bold, beautiful wines. Oh, you're a California snob? They've got Cabernet from Cakebread and Sterling ("Vitner's" and label). But if you're looking for the same bang on a budget, look no further than the Terra Andina Carmenere, a killer wine with almost as much body as those bold Italians but only $32/bottle. By the glass, try the Dolcetto d'Alba, a nice medium-bodied red that pairs well with most of the food.
Right right right, the food, the food...from the Detroit Restaurant Week menu I tried the Famous Roma Cafe Tossed Salad -- hard boiled egg, garbanzo beans, and plump tomatoes with their house dressing. I cleaned that plate and tried to clean the next, but the Gnocchi ala Palomina was simply too much. Creamy tomato-basil sauce covering tender potato dumplings--a real rib-sticker and proof that vegetarian dishes can be quite hearty. Finally it was on to the canolli, cream-filled shells with shaved chocolate and toasted almonds using a recipe passed down from Jan's grandmother. Everything here is very classic, nothing fancy or trendy, just big plates of good, hearty food made simply with lots of flavor. You'll leave here stuffed and satisfied, in a "Roma Coma" as another FB friend noted.
Roma Cafe is a little off the beaten path in Eastern Market (near the FD lofts down the farther end of Russell St.), so it is more of a destination place and not so much somewhere you'll just happen by. They do offer shuttle service to all major games as well as ANYWHERE downtown on the weekends (consider the traffic, and the parking, and the headache...). But ultimately it is the home-away-from-home feel that makes Roma Cafe so special and unique, in addition to the great food and long history. As Jan notes, "This is a great place in a city that is struggling to rebuild itself, but it doesn't need to rebuild. It's like stepping into history while surrounded by good people."
DETROIT RESTAURANT WEEK MENU:
Hearty Homemade Minestrone
Famous Roma Cafe Tossed Salad
Italian Sausage with Red & Green Peppers
Roma's Heartwarming Homemade Lasagna
(Beef tenderloin medallions sautéed with Marsala wine and mushrooms)
(Hearty favorite vegetarian dish)
Gnocchi ala Palomina
(Vegetarian creamy tomato and fresh basil sauce)
Veal or Chicken Limone
(Choice of veal or chicken sautéed in lemon and white wine)
(Old family recipe – cream-filled shell with shaved chocolate and
Italian Rum Spumoni
(Roma Cafe classic dessert favorite)
Italian Lemon Ice
(For a lighter finish)