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Cafe Roma Working Out Kinks During A Period Of Transition

Change can be a good thing, especially in the restaurant business. A fresh start usually means an infusion of enthusiasm and new ideas.

Of course, change can also mean a period of adjustment, with some bumps and turbulence along the way.

There have been some major changes at one of Spokane’s oldest restaurants. Cafe Roma has new owners, a new menu and a new chef, Gina Lanza formerly of the Anaconda Grille and Amore. It all sounds so promising, but my experiences so far at the new Cafe Roma have been wildly uneven.

I’ve had a great meal, and on other occasions been disappointed. I’ve had servers who are in serious need of polish (during lunch, I had to ask for a napkin, my iced tea, pepper for my salad and the check) and then another time, I was served by a waitress who was attentive and friendly without being intrusive.

Chalk it up to a time of transition? Well, maybe.

The most welcome changes are on the menu, with creative dishes offered along with more traditional Italian fare. There are now some affordable choices, too, among the new selections. A couple of pasta dinners are under $10, with soup or salad included.

Table service is now offered at lunch, so there’s not the awkward business of standing in line to order. And the selections at noon are much more varied than the mayo-soaked pasta salads from days gone by - ranging from imaginative sandwiches to more substantial fare including a half-dozen pasta dishes.

The dining room has a completely different atmosphere in the daylight. The greenhouse windows and all the plants give it the feel of a conservatory, circa 1970. This seems to be a real hot spot for ladies who lunch.

I ordered crab cakes ($8.95) with a lemon-butter sauce and split a Caesar salad ($6.50) with my lunch date. That romaine salad has become ubiquitous, but so many stray from the original recipe of lemon juice, garlic, olive oil and anchovies, they should no longer be called Caesar. That was the case at Cafe Roma, with the lettuce tossed in a creamy balsamic vinaigrette that was surprisingly bland. Nothing a little fresh cracked pepper couldn’t perk up … Now where was that waiter?

Hot, soft rolls were served with the salad. If you want garlic bread, it’s $3.

My crab cakes were nicely presented, garnished with roasted yellow peppers and a side of rich, creamy fettucine. However, the cakes tasted fishy, like they were made with canned crab. I have since learned they have been dropped from the menu.

On the flip side, I also sampled a lovely seafood pasta ($8.25), perfectly cooked clams, slightly chewy prawns and spinach tossed with penne. It came swimming in a bowl of cream sauce flavored with goat cheese. The tangy sauce really made the dish. It was light, not thick and heavy and had a terrific flavor that didn’t mask the delicate seafood.

About the time our lunch came, a nearby table of three asked when they were going to be served. They had been there for 45 minutes and people who had arrived after them had come and gone. Where was their lunch?

The server checked in the kitchen and came back with news that it would still be a while. They left in a huff. I’ve been in similar circumstances and there’s nothing more frustrating than feeling overlooked. Although the waiter apologized sincerely, he shouldn’t have let those customers walk out the door without a gift certificate for a return visit. Those folks surely won’t be back and they’ve no doubt told their friends.

Unlike those hungry people, our meal ended on a sweet note, with an excellent lemon chiffon cake baked by Take the Cake.

In the evening, the dining room turns soft and romantic as Christmas lights twinkle and candles glow. They could improve on that scenario by replacing the elevator music playing in the background with something with Italian accent, though.

Back in September, the first week Lanza landed in the kitchen at Cafe Roma, I enjoyed a memorable meal. Everything clicked that night.

I mmmm-ed and ahhh-ed over a perfectly turned out veal piccata ($18) - tender, pan-fried scallopine with just the right notes of lemon, butter and capers. It was served on a bed of artichoke hearts and gently poached tomatoes. By smashing the side of roasted new potatoes, I was able to sop up some of the rich sauce.

During that dinner, I also sampled the Penne Roma ($12), a pasta my vegetarian pal declared one of the best meatless dish he’s ever eaten. The ingredients were simple enough - grilled artichoke hearts, fresh basil, spinach, garlic and goat cheese tossed with penne - but together, the combination was a harmonious winner.

And the roasted duck special ($18.75) really soared, too. Though the menu said it was boneless, the half a bird came on the bone. But that didn’t really detract from the rich flavor of the meat. And the tiny French lentils on the side only added to its robust taste.

Also, a grilled chicken breast was cooked moist and drizzled with a fragrant roasted garlic and rosemary puree. That entree was served with mashed potatoes made silky with a generous dose of olive oil. It was homey, comfort food at its finest. And the portion was huge.

My next experience at dinner wasn’t quite as memorable. I ordered polenta rustica ($12), which came with sauteed veggies and was smothered with a tomato-eggplant sauce. Again, the presentation was nice with a sprig of fresh thyme garnishing the crimson-colored dish. But the sauce was a acidic and the polenta was lumpy.

I also tried a Tuscan-style braised salmon from the fresh sheet and it was terrific. The fish was cooked properly, so it was still moist and flaky. It was served on a hearty stew of white beans studded with Italian bacon, a nice combination.

I enjoyed a Saintsbury pinot noir from California with dinner. The wine list is small, with selections from the Northwest, California and Europe. And there’s a $10 corkage fee if you bring your own.

I winced watching servers pour white wine into big red-wine glasses. That’s probably not something most people notice, yet serving wine in the proper glass can make a difference in the way it tastes.

It seems as if Cafe Roma has all the right ingredients for success, especially the desire to succeed. There are plans to remodel and cocktails will soon be added to the mix.

Cafe Roma is located in the Lincoln Heights Shopping Center at 2727 S. Mt. Vernon. For reservations, call 534-5540.

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MEMO: Checking Back is a feature of The Spokesman-Review’s dining coverage where our restaurant critic returns to a restaurant that has previously been reviewed.

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Checking Back is a feature of The Spokesman-Review’s dining coverage where our restaurant critic returns to a restaurant that has previously been reviewed.

The following fields overflowed: SUPCAT = COLUMN, RESTAURANT REVIEW - Checking back