Vincenzo (“Enzo”) Romeo is the kind of guy you like instantly. Walk into his restaurant, Romeo Cucina on Broadway, and you might as well have walked into the kitchen of his own home.
Having been born above his father’s restaurant, Enzo doesn’t see that your restaurant experience should really be any different than actually eating in his home. Raised with six brothers and sisters in Vibo Valentia in southern Italy, the siblings were working in the restaurant and learning their first recipes from Mom and Dad before they had graduated grade school.
Fast forward a few decades and a hop across the Big Pond, and Enzo and brother, Antonio, are still dishing out Mom’s recipes, Dad’s baking secrets and their own concoctions in this Romeo Cucina (“the kitchen”) location for 23 years. (Twenty-three years!) This is just one of two Romeo Cucinas (the other is in Laguna Niguel) after a long line of successful Italian restaurants in L.A., Palm Springs and Corona del Mar.
“We make everything here in our kitchen two to three times a week,” says Enzo. “All the tortellini, pastas, raviolis, breads, and the majority of our desserts … and we still make Mom’s meat sauce and tomato sauce the way she’s always made it.”
While Mom Romeo, now 84, still insists on cooking Sunday’s entire family meal for a brood of 15-20 people, Enzo and Antonio insist on being in the kitchen every day of the week to ensure they’re providing “family meal” love to a bevy of longtime regulars and new visitors.
Romeo Cucina’s Food – Like the Home You Wish You’d Grown Up In
Recent changes and additions to the Romeo menu only make your decision more difficult. The brothers have added new appetizers to an already-substantial list, a hearty new salad to join five others, and at least 12 new dishes in the extensive offering of pastas, “secondi” entrées and wood-fired pizzas. Additionally, Romeo Cucina offers gluten free pasta and pizza crusts as options.
“We always keep the classic favorites on the menu,” says Enzo, “But we like to change it and keep it fresh, too.”
This is, after all, family they’re cooking for.
In some cases, the new dishes are a fresh take on an old classic. Take, for instance, Romeo’s popular Bruschetta Piatta, now served as flat focaccia bread baked in their wood oven and topped with just-picked tomatoes, garlic, basil and ricotta salata.
For the first time in forever, I’m not wrangling with a big chunk of bread and can actually taste the super-fresh toppings. It’s absolutely lovely.
With the World Series playing in the background, Enzo pitches his own version of a baseball, the Arancini di Riso. As I delicately slice into this giant saffron fried risotto ball, he tells me that he and his brothers and sisters were raised to pick it up with a napkin and eat it like a popcorn ball.
I’m skeptical, given the decadent insides of gooey mozzarella in Bolognese sauce, but find it goes down quite beautifully with a fork, too.
Nearly a Century of Family Cooking at Italian Village Pricing
As it’s impossible to “taste test” an assortment of hearty pasta dishes, Enzo decides to cook up four mini versions of new dishes and old favorites for me. Given that I’m a sucker for Italian food, but a self-professed foodie fanatic, too, I feel that I’ve died and gone to heaven when the plate arrives.
This, my friends, is truly delicious Italian food fare. Each of the four dishes carries its own personality (with pride, I might add), and when he asks my favorite, I’m at a complete loss for words.
The Gnocchetti alla Grappa lightly coats homemade potato pillows in grappa sauce with chopped bits of zucchini, sun dried tomatoes and mushrooms. (You might know me as a self-professed foodie fanatic, but I’m also a closet gnocchi maker – I haven’t easily found gnocchi that’s light and fluffy, so I’ve always resorted to making it myself. Happily, I think I can now retire the rather tedious task and call in the order to Romeo Cucina.)
Turn the plate counterclockwise, and it’s two more “taste testers,” Panzarotti D’Aragosta nestled next to a separate serving of Artichoke Ravioli. In contrast to the Gnocchi’s mildness, the Ravioli dish is a rollick burst of garlicky artichoke, capers and lemon ladled over raviolis stuffed with sublime mascarpone and ricotta cheeses. As I’m the kind who will eat capers from a jar, I adore the contrast of tang and salt with the creamy cheeses. It’s a riot of flavor and fun.
Mowing right along, it’s on to the Panzarotti, a freshly made stuffed pasta that resembles a miniaturized half-moon ravioli. In this case, the pasta is stuffed with fresh, local lobster (“Aragosta”), and crab meat, and then tossed in a tomato sauce of fresh shrimp and scallops. With its super rich meld of flavors, it’s small wonder this is one of the restaurant’s perennial best sellers.
Finally, I eye the last dish for tonight’s taste test, Tortelloni de Carne. It’s so gorgeous, I had saved it for last, but now wonder how I’ll even manage two bites.
The homemade tortelloni is plump and perfect and filled to the brim with tender rib eye. Tossed in today’s fresh pesto sauce and garnished with arugula and shaved Grana Padano, it’s a bases-loaded homerun hit outta the park. (I manage four bites and beg for a to go bag.)
Desserts and Happy Hour Sweetness
If you think you’re getting out of this family kitchen without dessert, you are so sorely mistaken. The brothers serve up six nightly desserts with additional “gelati” and spumoni.
One of Romeo Cucina’s best sellers, the Torta Al Cioccolato, arrives with aplomb. It’s chocolate layered cake filled with chocolate cream, covered in chocolate ganache and rimmed with … of course … chocolate flakes. Toasted hazelnuts complete the craziness. It’s melt-in-your-mouth goodness.
And, as for Happy Hour, Romeo Cucina is one of the few in town to offer happy hour every day of the week, 5:00 to 7:00 p.m., with Monday and Thursday nights both dedicated to serving the happy hour menu all night long.
On the Happy Hour Menu, eight full appetizer portions and meals are offered at $8.95, and house and premium well and wines are served along with draft and bottled beers, margaritas and martinis.
“In the summer, it’s pretty hectic, so we change the happy hours to run 5:00 to 6:30 p.m.,” says Enzo. “We thought of doing away with it in the summer, but our locals here love our happy hour and they matter the most to us. They’re here for us year-round, so we’re always going to be here for them, too.”
Romeo Family Enjoys Extended Family
As the Romeo family specifically chose Laguna Beach in 1988, they think of the Laguna locals as none other than their extended family.
“My brother was the first to arrive from Italy, and he was in L.A., and I didn’t really like L.A.,” says Enzo. “So, one day he called me and said, ‘I found the town for us,’ and I flew out, came to Laguna Beach with him, and decided that week to move my family from Italy.”
Though he started cooking in Beverly Hills, it didn’t take long for Enzo to gather the family wagons and venture to their agreed preference in South Orange County.
Enzo says they feel an affinity for Laguna as it has that “Euro feeling,” he says.
“Laguna Beach is a lot like Portofino – it’s like living every day on vacation by the ocean,” says Enzo. “And all the art and the people who live here … it’s our kind of village.”
Just after the year 2000 arrived, Enzo’s closest brother, Ignazio, passed away. Just three years older than Enzo, Ignazio was responsible for instilling Enzo’s love of cooking and great food.
“We did everything together, so when he passed away, I couldn’t stand it – I had to leave for awhile and do something else.”
Enzo ended up at the Mandalay Bay casino as Executive Chef, where his boss constantly assured him to think “really BIG.”
“We were going through $75,000 in food in a single hour sometimes,” he says. “It was a crazy existence serving up that kind of food at that level of volume.
“I lasted two years, and I was ready to come back,” Enzo continues. “I can’t even tell you how I felt the day I drove back into Laguna Beach to stay. This is my family’s home.”