Rome, Sweet, Rome

Photo by Matt OttoYou have to question the business acumen of anyone who opens an Italian restaurant within a meatball's throw of three north Orange County Italian-restaurant standards like Angelo's N Vinci's, Mulberry Street Ristorante and Spadra Ristorante (formerly Il Ghiotto)—all privately owned eateries, each gracing downtown Fullerton for more than 20 years.

But that didn't deter a couple of Romans, brothers David and Giovanni, from opening their second Roman Cucina (the original location is in Sunset Beach) earlier this year in the heart of Fullerton's boom of bars and restaurants. Their lure to secure a following within the midst of such lofty Italian competition? Hearty, uncomplicated Italian fare—and a laid-back atmosphere intimate enough for a quiet dinner with a potential darling, yet spacious enough to entertain a group of 10 hipsters on its half-price wine Monday nights.

“All the Italian restaurants down here are good, and they all have different styles in what they serve and who they're appealing to,” says David. “I think we're a little hipper and we're really trying to appeal to a younger clientele.”

Both Roman brothers are twentysomething, and that youthfulness characterizes their restaurant in several ways. The servers are all young, strapping lads, most of who seem to have ditched their boards seconds before donning bicep-constricting black tees. The soundtrack for dinner includes the obligatory Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra croons but also features Elvis, Johnny Cash and the occasional Boy George. The interior blends traditional and contemporary, with flat-screen TVs alongside old-school chandeliers. The photo-lined walls show smiling Italian clans, but one section is devoted to Italian-American boxers, where you can dine beneath the black eye of some Rocky or another, or beneath an oversized copy of the SportsIllustratedcover showing Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini's one-man massacre of Duk Koo Kim in 1982.

Much like the restaurant's interior, there's nothing pretentious or nouveau about the service or cuisine, no-nonsense Italian fare based on three kinds of pasta: fettuccine, linguine and penne. “My brother and I really believe in consistency, and everyone either likes tubes or spaghetti, so you can't go wrong with that,” David says. “Everything we serve here is what my family grew up eating. The recipes are my mother's and grandmother's, and my brother was able to alter them to fit a restaurant. It's really traditional, home-cooked food, nothing fancy.”

The Romans' grub might not be fancy, but that doesn't make it any less rich. Take the lasagna Bolognese, layers of thick pasta filled with peppery ground beef. Or the aglio olio, which is really nothing but penne, olive oil and garlic—but why would you need anything else? While the marinara and Alfredo sauces are fine, the regulars already indulge on the lemon cream sauce and the rosa, a creamy tomato sauce that tends to overwhelm whatever it's served on but is so tasty no one really seems to care.

You won't find veal, lamb, rabbit, or anything else too far off the main Italian grub drag—pasta, beef and pork make Roman Cucina. Seafood is limited to shrimp, with a little bit of crab in the spicy arrabiatta. A variety of enormous panini sandwiches—including a fat meatball sandwich that could feed a small Italian family (if one ever existed)—make a great lunch. The Italian wedding soup—acine de pepe, herbed meatballs and luscious escarole—and the Demetri salad are popular antipasti choices. Prices for entrees range between $10.95 and $13.95, with only a handful of dishes costing more. And with half-price wine Mondays (and no corkage fees on that night) and $5 martini Wednesdays, you won't have to hock your mother's wedding dress for that fancy date.

You don't walk out of Roman Cucina crowing about the avant-garde culinary expertise or the tastefully arranged garnishes. Unlike thosekinds of faux Italian restaurants, you're supposed to eat everything on your plate at Roman Cucina. And the success of the business, and the fact that downtown Fullerton is currently exploding with nightlife, is prompting David Roman to consider moving there from Huntington Beach. “I didn't know this place even existed before we thought about opening,” he says. “But I've been blown away by what's happening down here.” And at his family's fine eatery, for that matter.


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