Editor’s Note: As of July 20, 2014, Villa Romana is unfortunately closed for business. After 60 years of being one of the city’s most popular Italian restaurants, the owners are retiring for a much deserved break.
Italy has been like a third home to me, its verdant rolling hills, sweetly scented air and soul satisfying food constantly lingering in the recesses of my mind. Having eaten my way through Italy and in countless Italian restaurants throughout the world, I have learned to distinguish between the authentic and the watered down versions that exist simply to please undiscerning palates. In one of the globe’s main culinary capitals- San Francisco, there exist numerous Italian restaurants, all claiming to be as authentic as the motherland. While many of them are good, that is all they are, just good. I have gone through the entire city in search of an Italian eatery that could inspire me; stir up some emotion in me the likes of what I felt while in Italy.
It was only recently that I understood why I had not chosen one of those restaurants to add to the AF Favorites list. On an evening where my reservations at a nearby restaurant were somehow lost, my guests and I happened upon a little San Francisco Italian gem- Villa Romana. The fact that Villa Romana has been a family run business for over 55 years should tell the whole story. This charming Italian restaurant transported me to a faraway place as soon as I walked in. Wood paneling that blanketed the walls and ceiling were reminiscent of trattorias in Tuscany while the unmistakable aroma of deep rooted tradition and authenticity brought an immediate smile to my face.
Service reminded me of the family run local restaurants in Italy- genuine, warm, attentive and unpretentious. The entire staff and owners make every guest feel like welcome, appreciated family.While it’s perhaps cliché, I started the meal with the Calamari Fritti. It’s a classic, simple dish that can instantly describe the chef’s talents and skills or lack thereof. Crisp, succulent and perfectly flavored, it’s easy to understand why locals have loved Villa Romana’s version of this dish for decades. The Antipasto followed, a smorgasbord of prosciutto, mortadella and salami, with just as much savory goodness and lovely blend of flavors.
The piece de resistance was the Fettuccine con Gamberoni- succulent prawns tossed with al dente pasta in a luscious, exquisitely seasoned cream pesto sauce. It’s all about that first moment when the sweet basil wafts upwards and triggers the umami on the palate and then, the anticipated first bite. A touch of garlic, a blend of basil and cream, a swirl of olive oil…I closed my eyes, allowing the flavors to linger and the dulcet sounds of Pavarotti singing La Donna E Mobile rang in my ears. For that one moment in time I was no longer in San Francisco but sitting in the Tuscan countryside without a care in the world.
Sadly, the Fettuccine came to an end only to be completed by Villa Romana’s classic Tiramisu. Real espresso, real liquor, real ecstasy. Moist and just sweet enough, this light Tiramisu begged to be worshipped for the masterpiece that it was. At evening’s end, I was thrilled to find my latest new Favorite Restaurant, thrilled that such obvious talent and passion for Italian cuisine was alive and well. Thankful that this particular Italian family emigrated to America; hopeful that locals will keep Villa Romana alive for at least another 55 years.