You Made Me Love You
Wooed by Bubbling Cheeses and Generous Portions
1500 Barton Springs Rd., 476-1090
Fri & Sat, 11am-11pm
Forget Juliet, Romeo's love affair is with big Italian food in the "straight-outta-Mama's-kitchen" tradition. The Barton Springs Road restaurant makes the perfect match for those seeking plates of plenty, each of its pizzas, pastas, and meat specialties served in mammoth proportions. Romeo's isn't about designer Italian cuisine; instead, the restaurant turns out honest food like that you might find in a family-run joint in Jersey, with added attention to detail and special consideration for diners of varying persuasions such as vegetarians and the cholesterol-conscious. Remember the recent movie Big Night? Well, Romeo's feels a little bit like the wildly successful spot that the brothers envied but just couldn't compete with: Authenticity may be arguable, but the food clearly pleases the generally abundant crowd. When it comes to atmosphere, kitsch prevails at Romeo's. The low-ceilinged dining room is canopied by dangling bunches of plastic grapes, Chianti bottles abound, and Frank Sinatra's crooning smothers the din. Some characterize the restaurant's dimly lit interior and amicable service as romantic. Perhaps I've too vivid an imagination, but I consider the ambience more Mystic Pizza, with a little bit of The Godfather thrown in. The whole time I was there I expected a portly proprietor to emerge from some mysterious, off-limits office in the back to shake hands with a few favored customers. The restaurant's outdoor patio offers decidedly less intrigue, but its tables under a soaring pecan grove benefit from a pleasant breeze generated by a couple of circulating fans, and an outdoor service island assures diners the same attention received inside.
Romeo's menu seduces in a bold, brash manner. During one recent lunch, I was tempted by more than I could ever get around. An appetizer of shrimp-stuffed mushrooms ($6.25) launched my meal, which consisted of a huge spinach salad, the Bocconcini ($7.25), and a pizza with a Southwestern flair. The kitchen at Romeo's has a passion for cheese, and the steaming platter of stuffed mushrooms came blanketed with a bubbling dairy mass. The shrimp-filled caps were afloat in a fresh, spicy marinara (an excellent balance of the sweet and acidic), and a light basil cream sauce finished the dish. The shrimp and fresh basil didn't particularly stand out given the appetizer's rich sauces, but, as I sopped up every last drop on the plate with one of the restaurant's piping hot rolls, I couldn't find room for complaint. In fact, I could have stopped there and considered the rice cake-sized mushrooms an ample meal in themselves, but about that time the Bocconcini salad exited the kitchen, as did the pizza.
Big is the best way to describe the salad, which must have included several bunches of emerald spinach in addition to a smattering of homemade croutons and plump rounds of tomato and fresh mozzarella. The salad was served sans dressing, presented with cruets of balsamic vinegar and olive oil for self service. Ordered alone, it may have left me wanting for a wider repertoire of flavor, but paired with the chipotle chicken pizza ($8.50), it was ideal. The pizza, Romeo's nod to its home in the Southwest, was bigger than a Frisbee and paved with a festive confetti of roasted corn, black beans, serrano pepper, red onion, and cilantro. Parmesan and a smoky, stringy mozzarella provided the cheese quota, and Roma tomatoes added an Italian touch. With all the recent to-do over pizzas and their crusts, I suppose it must be said that Romeo's doesn't do a "pie" in the New York tradition. But never mind. The restaurant's take on pizza crust proved to be agreeable -- soft in the center but not doughy, and somewhat puffed toward the periphery, with a touch of crispness both there and on the bottom.
Following a weekend of physical exertion, a copious dinner at Romeo's struck the right chord. This time, I was wooed by the pasta and specialty selections but couldn't resist sampling another appetizer as well, so I chose the grilled polenta ($5.25), a hefty slab of which was topped with sautéed spinach and fontina cheese and set in a tart tomato sauce. The dish was tasty with a soft, comfort food texture. I don't think the polenta ever touched the grill, but it was baked until firm and presented well nonetheless. Once again, every last drop of the sauce was wiped clean from the serving plate by generous pinches of the restaurant's rolls.
When it came to the main course, three entrées vied for my attention: the exuberant pasta arrabiatta or angry pasta ($7.85), the vegetable ziti ($7.50), and the restaurant's namesake shrimp dish, Shrimp Romeo with pesto ($10.95). The last was delectable -- a mess of noodles topped with Parmesan-coated grilled shrimp tossed in a sensual cream sauce perfumed by basil. Although I doubt it could be characterized as light in the calorie department, this house specialty treaded softly on the palate, earning top marks for its surprising delicateness. The vegetable ziti, a bubbling casserole of zucchini, yellow squash, carrots, onions, mushrooms, and tubular pasta proved much more simple yet no less provocative. The vegetables were exemplary in texture -- sautéed until just al dente. They came cloaked in a subtle tomato cream sauce and enclosed under a generous layer of melted fontina and Parmesan cheeses. Finally, the pasta arrabiatta selection won me over with its intriguing interplay of the soft and spicy. In it, ribbons of fettucine bathed in a cream sauce laced with white wine. Bits of proscuitto, tomato, and mushroom lounged on top of the pasta, which was enlivened by feisty specks of cracked red pepper.
Those seeking highfalutin or fastidiously genuine Italian cooking may find that Romeo's kitchen falls short of expectations. But the comfortable restaurant will win the devotion of diners desiring straightforward American-Italian cuisine and generous portions. To be honest, Romeo's caught me off guard. I hardly expected to fall, but the restaurant has captured my heart and my tastebuds with its casual, consistent fare.