It’s cold, overcast, blustery day in Detroit. Grapevines, dead and withered, rattle against a rusted chain link fence off of McDougall. Welcome to Detroit’s Little Italy!
Or what’s left of it.
Forget Italians. Few today call the neighborhood east of Eastern Market home. It’s ground zero for Detroit’s urban prairie, a bucolic, flattened landscape, overgrown and haunting. It’s the kind of neighborhood where students from the prestigious Cranbook Academy of Art can design a house out of cinder blocks for an “under-housed family”, only to have a hipster that digs its proximity to Eastern Market snap it up a few years later.
About the only holdover left from the days of bread sticks and salad is Roma Cafe, the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Detroit, having opened in 1890. Sandwiched in a grimy industrialized section of what’s now considered an extension of Eastern Market, it doesn’t look like much from the outside, a plain brick building with faded candy cane-colored awnings.
Hell, the interior doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, either. The worn red and green floral patterned carpet, ancient tuxedoed waiters, and burgundy table cloths bring to mind another burgundy – Ron Burgundy. Dim lighting and plentiful booze only add to the wonderfully dated mystique.
It’s decor only a dyed in the wig mafioso could truly appreciate, faded glamor, hearkening back to the days when crooners like Frank Sinatra and Sammie Davis Jr. would stop by whenever they were in town for veal and fist-sized filet mignon. If the walls could talk, they’d ask for a drink, babe, and scramsville. The history is unreal. This is where the Purple Gang drank – this is where Joe Biden dribbled sauce down his chin a few months ago.
OK, we’ll forget that last part.
None of that would matter, though, if the food sucked. And it doesn’t. But… but… I hate to admit it, but it’s not the best in town, either. Still, you can’t beat the quality you get for the price. Comparing it to Olive Garden, it wins hands down. The owner of Roma Cafe goes to Italy on bonafide taste-testing trips; Olive Garden sends its “chefs” to a fake school in Tuscany. Rome Cafe’s waiters give you brusque, almost backhanded compliments; Olive Garden once gave a toddler sangria.
Sure, if you want to pay double the amount you would at Roma Cafe, you can get fancier Italian fare. But you know what, Roma Cafe gets the American palette. They understand that when I order eggplant Parmesan, I want enough melted cheese to clog my arteries forever. Meat sauce should taste like my Italian grandma’s, with finely ground beef, tons of cheese, heaping helpings of salt, and pinches of garlic. She never cared about organic this or grass fed that. Her Parmesan was packaged in plastic shakers.
But she cooked it with love.
I’m not sure what Parmesan Roma Cafe uses or what is or isn’t organic, but you can definitely taste that the people behind the food are a family – literally. The Sossi family has owned Roma Cafe for decades, and in a day and age when the waitstaff are too often treated like gum under the management’s shoes, the workers have real, tangible benefits. In proud Detroit tradition, they’re even unionized.
Roma Cafe serves meals you can feel good about.