Restaurant delivers personal touch and essence of Italy

Ristorante Vecchia Roma
398 Watertown St., Newton

Hours: Tuesday-Thursday, 5-9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5-10 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday
Reservations, major credit cards accepted
Accessible to the handicapped

Tucked away in the Newton village of Nonantum is Ristorante Vecchia Roma, which has been run by Benedetto Cerasani and his wife, Anna, since 1996. Born and raised in Italy, Cerasani acts as the executive (and only) chef, serving up dishes from Rome, where he attended cooking school, Milan and Tuscany where he worked, and his mother’s kitchen in Abruzzi.

Cerasani has one prep cook, one dishwasher, and one waiter, so you’ll often see him dart out of the kitchen with plate in hand to deliver one of his creations. He favors basic ingredients like fresh parsley, garlic, rosemary, sage, oregano, and basil. Produce is purchased daily.

“We’re a small restaurant and really cater to our customers to make sure their food is prepared the way they like it,” said Anna Cerasani. “We want people to have a feeling of home.”

She was born in Italy and moved to the United States at the age of 4. Italian was her first language and she would often spend vacations with her relatives in Italy, which is how she met Benedetto. They lived in Italy for three years, until their first son was born.

“Benedetto is from a small farm town and we decided to come back to the United States where I have family,” said Anna. “He’s the brains behind the kitchen, and I do the books and waitress.

Among their most popular dishes is the zuppe de pesche, a fish stew with half a lobster, mussels, clams, calamari, shrimp, and tilapia in a light tomato sauce ($32), and festonata del convento, which has parpadella (extra wide fettuccini) with roasted peppers, eggplant, onions, zucchini, and mushrooms in a fresh cherry tomato sauce. ($15).

On a recent Tuesday evening at Ristorante Vecchia Roma, over the buzz of diners, I heard familiar music in the background and soon realized that many songs were popular American tunes being sung in Italian. We were brought a basket of peasant bread and black olive tapenade, a popular Mediterranean spread made of olives, capers, and olive oil. We started with the tartine with melon and prosciutto ($11) an appetizer of ripe cantaloupe and paper-thin prosciutto drizzled with a puree of boiled mint leaves and olive oil. It was a perfect combination of sweet and salty.

Next was the fagioli all’ uccelletto, cannelloni beans sautéed in olive oil, onions, pancetta, and basil in a spicy plum tomato sauce ($11). It was as tasty alone as it was on the bread. We also tried the gnocchi alla Romana, baked with sage, olive oil, and parmesan ($13). Unlike traditional marble-sized dumplings often made from potato, these were round, 2 inches in diameter, and made from semolina (wheat).

Not to be missed is the melanzane ripiene, a rolled eggplant filled with fresh ricotta, smoked and fresh mozzarella, in a plum tomato sauce ($11). It was delicious, and we reached for the basket of bread to mop up the sauce.

For years Ristorante Vecchia Roma had seating for 22 but last May it expanded. The spot can now accommodate 46 guests.

Since there is no tap water served (you can order Pellegrino sparkling water and Panna still water from Tuscany at $4 per 1 litre bottle), you might consider a glass of wine. Bottles range from a 2006 Vina Rossi Di Majo, Norante ($23) to a 2001 Ricasoli Casalferro Sangiovese Merlot ($95.) I was put off by the “no tap water” rule, which our waiter explained had been issued for two reasons: no ice maker or kitchen space to house carafes, and keeping the tradition of Italy, where bottled mineral water is served.

Our first main course was shrimp fra diavolo with linguini, a wonderfully spicy homemade pasta with sautéed shrimp ($ 24). The pollo o vitello saltimbocca – chicken (or veal) with prosciutto, mushrooms, and sage in a garlic white wine sauce – was also good but a tad salty. It came with sautéed broccoli and hand-cut potatoes baked to perfection ($18). We also had the risotto al tartufo, arborio rice with pan-seared ribeye steak and shallots, finished with Parmesan cheese and white truffle oil ($19). This was my least favorite dish, as I found it to be too oily and not a tremendous amount of flavor.

I had the rigatoni all Abruzzese, ($16) pasta with sautéed onions, peas, and mini-meatballs in a light ricotta plum tomato sauce. I later learned that this is a recipe from Benedetto Cerasani’s mother .

The detail to each dish and the attentive waiter made this family-run place worthy of another visit. The only place where they fell short was in the desserts, which are flown in frozen from Italy.

We ended the night with a cappuccino that arrived with a beautiful cocoa fleur-de-lis. It may not be Italy, but for the evening, you can certainly pretend.


© Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company.

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One response to “Restaurant delivers personal touch and essence of Italy”

  1. I have been dining with the Cerasani Family for several years now. The atmosphere is pure Italy, the food is exceptional and the service is both prompt and familiar.
    I highly recommend an evening at Vecchia Roma.