A charming little neighborhood restaurant doesn't have to be in a charming little neighborhood. A case in point is Roma's Cafe, a modest Italian eatery sandwiched between a Precision Tune and a Jiffy Lube on busy York Road.
The restaurant shares a parking lot with the auto shops, but the scent of motor oil that greets you as you leave your car is no match for the welcoming aroma of garlic emanating from the cheerily lit restaurant.
Though it's not easily visible from the road, Roma's has obviously found a following since it opened in June 2004. I bet some customers stopped by for a slice or a sub while getting their oil changed and liked the food enough to return for dinner another night.
On a recent Friday night, most of the tables in the small dining area were occupied, and many patrons had brought their own bottles of wine, since Roma's does not serve alcohol.
Efforts have been made to give the small space some personality. Green checked tablecloths echo the green and white floor and the green and white ceiling tiles.
Service the night we were there wasn't perfect - new plates of food arrived before our dirty dishes were cleared - but it was friendly, unaffected and quick, just right for a neighborhood restaurant.
The owners of Roma's already have several Columbia restaurants, including Waterloo Pizza and Roma's Breakfast and Pizzeria. But the menu at this northern outpost is a little more ambitious, with seafood, steaks and nightly specials served alongside the pizzas and pastas.
I put the restaurant to the test by ordering the steak and crab cake combo, a meal that's not a natural for a place with a pizza-parlor heritage. Roma's version, though not perfect, was satisfying.
The main flaw was that our waitress didn't ask how I wanted my steak cooked, and I forgot to say. It arrived medium well, but it had been prepared with care. The thin piece of meat was tender enough to cut with a butter knife and delivered plenty of flavor.
The crab cake, a mix of lump crab and smaller pieces, boasted a beautiful golden crust and a sweet, mild flavor, but would have been better with less binding.
Of course, Roma's does pizza well. The hit of the evening was a white pizza with a thin, chewy crust and a garlicky mix of mozzarella, provolone and cheddar.
Oddly, the lasagna was not nearly as good. The enormous brick of cheese, meat and noodles was marred by an overly sweet sauce that just didn't seem to fit. A special of chicken and pasta with alfredo sauce featured sauteed tenderloins of chicken tossed into an enormous bowl of pasta and sauce that tasted like nothing but cream and butter. A good choice for a person who needs to put on a few pounds.
The appetizers generally hew to the standard chicken wings and fried mozzarella but also include stuffed mushrooms, which turned out to be a real treat, thanks to the outsized lumps of crab with which they are stuffed.
Sides at Roma's couldn't be more basic. Broccoli arrives as a single massive spear, steamed until crisp-tender and so hot it leaves a cloud of steam. The salad, overflowing its tiny porcelain bowl, comes with a plastic tub of tart, tasty house dressing.
Desserts are as classic as the rest of the menu and include cheesecake, apple cake and carrot cake. A chocolate-chip cheesecake with a chocolate frosting on top was sweet as candy, while the rice pudding, dusted with cinnamon, was milky and mild.
Like the rest of our meal at Roma's, these desserts lacked complexity. But they charmed us with their simplicity.
Where: 10515 York Road, Cockeysville
Open: 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday
Credit cards: All major
Prices: Appetizers $1.99-$8.95, entrees $4-$19.95
Food: *** (3 STARS)
Service: *** (3 STARS)
Atmosphere: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 STARS)