A few feet above my head hovered a balcony-in-miniature, complete with a wrought iron railing and shutters reminiscent of those latched to houses in the Italian countryside. Their color evinced a weather-weariness; though, pockets of flowers brought the scene to life. It was a scene unashamedly plucked from an idealization of Umbria.
And that made my meal seem more authentic—comfortable, even. My friends and I, exchanging work drama over glasses of rich Cabernet Sauvignon and bites of mortadella and carciofini, have never been more comfortable with the culinary staples of Italy. Although “Italian” often translates to garlic bread with spaghetti and meatballs in the U.S.—more Italian-American than true Italian—we pretended to be right at home among the antipasti laid before us. And while this indulgence was its own satisfying experience and the dishes were more or less authentic, their character was rather one-dimensional. Following a bite of mortadella and salami sandwiched together with a mild grin, my friend confessed, “It’s lunch meat. Good lunch meat, but it’s lunch meat.”
Still in good spirits, though, we eyed the entrées flowing out from the kitchen to our table with little introductory pomp. Presentation is not a forte of Antica Roma, but neither is it their goal—simplicity rendered the dishes neat and clean but without intimidating artistry. A healthy variety of dishes among us—apple-glazed duck, beef filet with Portobello mushrooms, and cioppino—we indulged with the same spirit as if we were lounging in the atrium of a hillside villa in Molise. Ridiculous? Probably. But the setting catered to our whimsy, and we went where it took us.
The banter about work continued but with less laughter and more aggression. “Have some more wine,” I advised my friend, seeing his cioppino sitting undisturbed. As he slowly relented, changing the subject to books and school, our conversation gently ebbed. Mouthfuls of tender duck lacquered in an apple glaze, beef lathered in Cognac-cream sauce and piled with plump mushrooms, and salty-sweet tomato broth drowning a single calamaro all stunted conversation. And if there is anything I’ve learned in the culinary world, it is that a chef has succeeded when conversation is replaced by a concentration on eating.
I will fault the kitchen for a slightly overdone cut of beef (though, it did not ruin the dish) and for a particularly bland serving of mashed potatoes as the accompaniment to an extraordinary duck. Such a simple complement is easily done well; it’s a shame it did not impress.
Just a block from the Cheesecake Factory and a few blocks from Old Chicago, Antica Roma is a welcome respite from the chains that seem to garner so much attention on the strip. Is it authentically Italian? In theory, yes. Its execution is good, but its quality is less than what a true Italian would appreciate. Then again, the clientele is American, searching for the flavors of Italy in an experience they can recognize and appreciate. The setting is apt for that indeed; the food is, for all intents and purposes, the sort to make you forget you were having a conversation. Isn’t that what dining is about?
Editor’s Note: YS just learned that Antica Roma is set to do a complete overhaul in the next few weeks—everything from interior design to the menu. While the essence of the restaurant will remain the same, be sure to visit soon if you want to catch the dishes in this review. The new Antica Roma will be unveiled at the end of April.
Three and a half stars
1308 Pearl Street, Boulder
Bottom line: Tasty food, executed well; the ambience homey; the staff is accommodating, if a bit slow.