In small-business obsessed Long Beach, a Starbucks closing is cause for major celebration--proof that community support helped neighboring coffeeshops prevail. And when the empty corporate storefront becomes home to an expanded location for one of those local favorites, it feels as though all is right in the world.
Just as Comedy Central's Dumb Starbucks experiment began confusing Angelenos, I felt obliged to lunch at the new Aroma di Roma Caffé Italiano, the city's most Euro-centric coffeehouse and a longtime Belmont Shore social hub.
Ten years ago, Aroma di Roma started serving gelato, paninis and espresso from a small Second Street frontage, but decided last year, it needed a serious upgrade. Starbucks had recently shuttered the smaller of the two locations it operated on the dining-and-entertainment drag and Aroma di Roma wasted little time renovating the interior and moving a few blocks west.
The new Aroma di Roma is nearly open air, twice as large, full of minimalist plastic furniture and tiled entirely in silky white, save for a massive street-art-style mural that features Italian imagery and cheeky phrases ("For a good time call Cleopatra") tagged like it was scrawled on some Venetian wall.
Unchanged in the switch, however, is the menu of both classic and house bistro dishes, meaning you can still get a swordfish and arugula sandwich or a so-called "sexy bagel" (cream cheese, tomatoes, onions, basil, pesto, salt, pepper and olive oil) along with your coffee from Long Beach roastery Tru Beans.
Lunchtime is always bustling at Aroma di Roma, and if your grabbing grub to go, it's hard to go wrong with any of their imaginative paninis, which come wrapped in butcher paper for easy hand-holding. Try the chicken and peperanato--a sandwich loaded with white meat chicken, olives, capers, bell peppers and goat cheese that is not nearly as salty as it sounds--or the Toscana, another chicken creation with pesto mayonnaise, provolone cheese and balsamic vinegar.
With breakfast served until 3 p.m., however, eating in begs for one of Aroma di Roma's silverware-required egg dishes. My current addiction has been the uova benedetto, eggs benedict's resourceful Italian cousin, which places a perfectly poached egg atop thin slices of dried proscuitto and paints drizzle zigzags atop the top with rich, green pesto.
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My only complaint with this benedetto version is the foundational bread Aroma di Roma uses, which sometimes is focaccia, sometimes sourdough, but never the traditional polenta, a missed opportunity to tie together all the flavors on the plate with a little Italian cornmeal.
As one of two independently owned coffeeshops in Belmont Shore (Polly's, a roaster, is only a block or so down), Aroma di Roma is the more multipurpose, specializing not just in exquisitely pulled espresso and Italian-themed ambient music (think: "That's Amore"), but also smoked salmon bagels and margherita pizzas.
Its expansion into the shell of a former chain store only serves to put a cherry on top of the Starbucks Saga of 2nd Street, a decade-long fight for community control that proves there is power in Long Beach's vehement localism, even when its replacement's inspiration lies half a world away. Aroma di Roma, 4708 East 2nd Street, Long Beach, (562) 439-ROMA, aromadiroma.com