Thursday, July 29, 2004

When in Rome's

Put the days of gluttony behind you and eat like a vegetarian

Posted on Thu, Jul 29, 2004 at 4:00 AM

Release Date: 2004-07-29

For children, birthday celebrations and pizza parties go hand-in-hand, but the culinary quality of the meal tends to be lost amid the noisy clatter of the latest arcade games and kids hopped up on caffeinated soft drinks. Fun, but frantic. To celebrate my friend's birthday we opted instead to try Rome's Pizza, an unassuming but far-from-pedestrian Italian and Mediterranean joint nestled among a day care center and dance studio in a North Side strip mall near I-10 West and DeZavala.

On a previous visit, I passed up their namesake pizza, pasta, and calzones, and went straight for their falafel sandwich - listed under their Mediterranean specialties - not knowing what to expect. Very few places in San Antonio can consistently get this Lebanese/Middle Eastern standard right, a simple combination of fried garbanzo beans, onions, parsley, and spices. I had such a terrible experience with the last falafel I ordered in town, I came into Rome's with skepticism and diminished expectations.

Initially, I balked at the price ($5.10; add $.80 for humus), but my attitude soon changed when my order arrived. Rome's falafel sandwich is easily twice the size of most, and provided enough of a meal for dinner and lunch the next day - or a late-night snack at the very least. The hot, crisp patties held up against the adornments (lettuce, tomato, tzatziki, and tahini), retaining their texture and flavor even after they had cooled. So far, so good, and certainly worth a return for the sandwich alone.

But birthday celebrations require birthday food, so for my second visit we dove into Rome's ample pizza menu. After salivating over their list of toppings - in addition to the standard tomato sauce-based pies, they offer a pesto base and several dishes which forgo sauce altogether, with toppings running the gamut from the usual (mushrooms, olives, onions) to the gourmet (sundried tomatoes, feta, eggplant) to the unexpected (chick peas, raisins, capers) - we ordered their Pesto Street and Rosemary Garlic Duo pizzas.

The birthday boy suggested the Rosemary Garlic Duo, a sauce-free disk of mozzarella, roasted garlic, pine nuts, and rosemary atop a lightly sweetened crust. Obviously this is his personal favorite: "How the mighty have fallen," I joked to this once-strict vegan after watching him bite into the thick layer of cheese, and he remained true to the Duo except for a slice of the Pesto Street. On the other hand, I felt disappointed after my first slice, less so after the second. When I commented on the dryness of the dish, my companions concurred, but noted that it usually had more life, or perhaps a healthy layer of olive oil. I had no complaints with the roasted garlic but, ajo lover that I am, I could always go for more. The dried rosemary was muted, almost unnoticeable (although being such a strong spice it's easy for it to overpower the rest of the dish). Since it's such a plentiful native plant, why not go fresh?

Fortunately, our other selection saved the day. As the name implies, Rome's replaces the tomato sauce on the Pesto Street with a light, basil-tinged, pesto base, topped with a hearty layer of melted mozzarella, artichoke hearts, calamata olives, and sliced tomatoes. With its light, crispy crust and full-bodied flavor, this pizza was the hands-down favorite of the rest of our party, and a joy to eat. Rather than take home leftovers we picked apart the much coveted last slice: crust, toppings, and what remained of the cheese-and-pesto combination.

We could have ordered four or five of the personal-size pizzas or brought in a larger crowd to sample some of their other dishes. The White House, a simple-sounding bed of mozzarella with red onions, garlic, basil, and olive oil, sounds tempting, as does their Tomato Duet, built on a layer of sliced tomatoes (instead of sauce) with feta and sundried tomatoes among the toppings. The eggplant parmesan also was recommended by my companions, both regulars. Unfinished business, to be sure, with or without a cumpleaños celebration. •


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