If you want to learn something about Detroit and have an authentic experience, you’ve got to go to some places with deep roots. A top qualifier on that list is the Roma Cafe, whose history goes back to 1890, and is the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the city.
When you step in to the restaurant on a Friday, you can’t help but notice the old school vibe. Waiters in tuxedos walk by with steaming trays of food. Portraits of past owners decorate the rooms. The bar is busy with bustling crowd, many of whom appear to be regulars. Couples on a Friday night date are drinking red wine, and in general, there’s a celebratory ambience. Inside each of the three dining rooms you can’t help but wonder what you’d hear “if the walls could talk.”
If you talk to the owner, Janet Sossi, whose family has run the place since 1936, she can tell you how the restaurant has ridden through some ups and downs. When she was growing up, it was a fine dining establishment.
“The tuxedos are a remnant of that era,” said Janet, gesturing to the attentive waitstaff dropping off cups of minestrone and Italian wedding soup, both family recipes that go back generations.
Today, the restaurant is more casual and laid back. Reflecting today’s tastes, you can now also find some vegetarian, vegan, and even gluten-free options that new chef Guy Pelino has created for people with diet preferences.
The focus of the business, and what’s kept it open all these years, is consistently making great food and providing a great experience for the customers. Like a lot of true Detroit establishments, there aren’t any gimmicks.
Roma’s location in the busy Eastern Market has helped that cause.
“Local and fresh ingredients are just right across the street,” said Sossi, who personally makes sure that the restaurant picks up fresh fish every single day.
Growing food, learning how to cook, and eating with people were a huge part of Janet’s childhood. Her family “was all about the food,” said Janet, reminiscing on the courses her aunts would make at a typical get together.
But the story began far before Janet’s time with her great uncle, Morris Sossi, who lived in Torino and worked at Fiat in 1900s. Working in the auto industry, he occasionally had to take months long business trips to Detroit (crossing the ocean on a ship takes quite a bit longer than the convenience of an airplane), and Sossi missed the food back home. So he bought a hot plate and began making pasta in his hotel room.
To help him cope, a colleague tipped him off that there was an Italian boardinghouse in Eastern Market where Italian farmers stayed, which is where Roma Cafe originated. Morris ate there every day on his trips and eventually bought the restaurant. Soon after, Janet’s grandfather, Eugenio Sossi came into the business. Her father was named after Eugenio’s best friend and sous chef who had a last name you might know if you say it out loud – Hector Boyardi.
Hector, (Ettoré in Italian) opened up his own restaurant in Cleveland and had this crazy idea to put spaghetti in a can. Apparently, Janet’s grandfather Eugenio opted to not invest in the idea, and the rest was history. Chef Boy-ar-dee (with the name spelled phonetically on the can) became a huge hit as a low cost, quick way for middle-class Americans to feed the family.
Despite the historic connection, there are no similarities between the mass produced canned spaghetti on the supermarket shelf and what you’ll find at Roma Cafe.
Roma’s menu isn’t a crazy take on Italian, and it’s traditional in the sense that it focuses on great food made with simple ingredients. The shrimp scampi with spinach was a great example of this approach. The shrimp were tender, lightly battered, and carefully seasoned. The spinach was simple, straightforward and seemed to melt in your mouth.
The love of food isn’t what keeps Janet in the business. It’s the people. As I worked through a hefty serving of chicken and eggplant Parmesan with their classic red sauce, I was amazed at the network of people that existed. Janet treats her customers as friends, and caught up with numerous people throughout the night.
“Running a restaurant isn’t really any fun if you don’t get to know your customers, for me, that’s the best part,” said Janet.
As I finished my Tiramisu – a must order here – I pondered the food landscape of Detroit, where new restaurants are clamoring for that authentic factor.
Here you won’t find a chalkboard written with swirly decrees about Detroit rising from the ashes or other nods to the “revitalization.” Absence of kitschy décor is a sure sign you’ve found an authentic Detroit place. The newer, flashier places stand on the shoulders of places like Roma Cafe.
Janet pointed out that this is not the first time Detroit has talked about a revitalization, and she’s more optimistic about this time.
“This time is different, there’s a new energy in the city,” said Sossi.
Though changes are abound in Detroit, she says Roma Cafe’s plans are to keep rolling with the tide, and remain a notable dining destination for well into the foreseeable future.
Roma Cafe is located at 3401 Riopelle Street in Detroit.