At first glance, Restaurant Roma doesn’t appear to be anything out of the ordinary. The nondescript brown tiles covering the floors, the dark wood bar, the vaguely Mediterranean-inspired wall décor and the rectangular paper Ikea lamps are similar to those at hundreds of other midrange restaurants throughout Barcelona. Situated on a quiet street in residential Sant Gervasi, Roma isn’t somewhere you’d be likely to come across accidentally, nor is it the kind of place you’d happen to hear about, unless you (or your aunt, or coworker or a friend of a friend) lived nearby. And that would be a shame because the food at Roma is good – ridiculously delicious, in fact.
Together with his brother, owner and chef Oscar Ribes bought the restaurant 12 years ago after having previously worked as a cook in various restaurants throughout the city. Oscar, who easily seduces diners with his infectious personality, is the type of hands-on restaurateur who fulfills all the roles at his restaurant, depending on what’s needed. He’s not always cooking but whenever a cook is absent, he is the one to fill in. He designed the menu himself, with a focus on home-grown flavor. “The menu was created for people who live in this city, so I try to have the kinds of dishes that we’re accustomed to eating here. We eat a Mediterranean diet and a big part of that is eating both locally and seasonally,” he says.
The restaurant offers upscale, yet surprisingly affordable, Mediterranean cocina de mercado (“market cuisine,” or seasonal cuisine). Everywhere you look on the menu there are regional ingredients, such as goat cheese, artichokes, cod, squid, pine nuts, anchovies and ceps mushrooms. Although this isn’t so uncommon in a city like Barcelona, what is unusual is the way Oscar combines these ingredients to make dishes that are unique and sing with flavor. The ultimate fancy comfort food – and our perpetual favorite – is the timbal, layers of cochinillo (tender suckling pig), potatoes and caramelized onions, all resting together on a delicious bed of pumpkin parmentier and drizzled with a demi-glace sauce. We’re also fond of the salad of baby broad beans with sautéed squid and pistachio vinaigrette. Then there are the excellent meat and fish dishes, our favorite being the bacalao (cod), which comes with potatoes gratinado with romesco sauce and a touch of honey.
After not having eaten at the Roma in a while, we recently stopped by for dinner, craving some of the cochinillo. We ordered a bottle of the house red – a very good Fontal Crianza 2008 – and, as we looked around, we noticed that Oscar had recently made a few changes: a bit of a paint job here, a new lampshade or two there. In addition to the books and magazines that had always been lying around (sundry copies of GQ and Maxim, along with the Enciclopedias de Cocina, volumes 8-10), various matching sets of bound novels had been carefully placed on ledges and countertops throughout the restaurant. Not only that, but the pool table was missing! Was Oscar on a mission to class the place up?
Luckily, the food was just as real as ever. Since it was the beginning of spring, Oscar had put calçots – the tender green onions beloved throughout Catalonia in springtime – on the menu and, naturally, we couldn’t resist trying them. In his version of the dish, the scallions came breaded and fried – leaving them crunchy on the outside and sweet and tender on the inside – and, unusually, they were served along with breaded and fried artichoke hearts. The tasty morsels were accompanied by the classic Catalan romesco dipping sauce, a blend of roasted tomatoes, toasted almonds and hazelnuts, bread crumbs, garlic, peppers and red wine vinegar.
The other diners that night were the typical regulares de la casa: a large family celebrating a birthday, middle-aged neighborhood couples enjoying an evening out, a group of colleagues from a nearby office. The atmosphere was familiar and unpretentious, and we were willing to bet that just about everyone in that room had eaten at Roma many times before and that, like us, they would surely be eating there many times again in the future.
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