Romeo's Pizza and Pasta-Lakeland, Florida

In gathering up restaurant reviews to submit to Urban Spoon, I was shocked to find that I'd never done a review of our favorite local restaurant. I've mentioned it many times, but a full scale review has never made it to the blog.

Today, that changes, especially since we enjoyed a meal at Romeo's tonight.

A little over two years ago, Ed and the boys didn't feel like cooking on a night I was attending class (honestly, that happens a lot around here), and Ed decided he'd driven by this place too many times to ignore. You have to understand, I am extremely picky about eating Italian food out. Olive Garden is NOT Italian food to me, because I was raised on my Mom's marinara, eggplant parmesan, baked ziti and other rustic dishes.

That night, though, he figured that they could go try the pizza in the name, since the local pizza is horrible-unless you like the national chains. He walked through the door and saw a menu board filled with inspired daily specials, rather than a walk up pizza counter and the plans took a rapid detour. GameTeen got pizza, Ed got Tortellini Emiliana (a cream sauce with ham chunks and peas) and Chef got the Mare e Monte over gnocci, a creamy dish with porcini mushrooms, shrimp and white truffle oil drizzled on top.

They were blown away. The sauces were delicate, the pasta the perfect al dente and each came with the choice of an appetizer sized salad or homemade soup. That day, they got salads.

I got home from class and found a piece of pizza waiting and Chef told me I could have ONE bite of his leftovers, because he was planning to have them when he got home from school the next day. Wait a minute, he has leftovers? He's the original member of the clean plate club.

Two nights later, the call of Romeo's was too great to deny and Ed took the whole family this time. The boys got various things, Ed went for that Mare e Monte over angel hair pasta and I got Penne Russea, because it is so rare to find that creamy tomato sauce on a menu around here and it is something that I don't make at home. It is an abundant bowl of penne, with a pale orange cream sauce that is filling without being heavy.

Since then, Romeo's has become a fairly regular haunt. It's that diamond in the rough of strip mall, run by a family that moved here from Italy about 15 years ago. The decor is unpretentious, but as Ed has mentioned in the past "you can serve these dishes at a white tablecloth restaurant for twice the price and people would pay it."

It is rare for me to find a restaurant where you can blind fold me and tell me to randomly point on the menu and I will be happy with the choice. In fact, Chef has done this to me, which netted ordering a dish I make at home:

I had three meals from this, the chicken cutlets pounded thin and fried crisp, the marinara slightly sweet and acidic, with ample mozzarella on top. If you're looking for traditional, rustic food-this is it. Ed insists the veal parmesan is even better, and I'll take his word for it. Order it, and you will have leftovers.

The Gnocci is made fresh in house, and Manuela often makes another variety. If you are in the mood for fresh, ask your server what she's made that day. Each day, the specials board lists 4 or 5 items that feature special ingredients. I'm partial to the pork Caprese, but I haven't had a dud yet in the dozens of times we've dined there. One thing: if you see that they've got Rice Balls on the specials board, get them. That's a rare treat, with a crispy bread crumb outer crust around a ball of rice (at a risotto consistency) with seasoned beef at the center.

Also on the pasta side, consider the Spaghetti Casarecchi, a baked dish that has a thick meat sauce, sausage and mushrooms. It is piled high and if you're like me, will be two meals and Ed sometimes doesn't finish it all. The linguine with clam sauce appeals to our seafood lover, while GameTeen loves their cheese ravioli in alfredo sauce. Manicotti, stuffed shells and the ravioli are served with your choice of red or white sauce on top.

The initial draw was and still is Romeo's pizza. It is so good that we no longer feel the urge to order pizza when we visit New York. Thin crust or Sicilian, they have the amount of crunch and perfect sauce ratios. I loathe cold pizza, but will eat their Sicilian pie that way anytime. The picture is a family favorite the Rustica. Even my picky kid chows down on the fresh slices of meat and generous dollops of ricotta on top of a traditional Neopolitan cheese pie. If you're especially hungry, the meat lovers stuffed pizza is similar.

Romeo's serves traditional Calzones and garlic knots, the former with a dough that is spun to the extra large 18" pie size, then folded over for a huge stuffed calzone filled with ricotta and whatever topping you choose. We tend to get the ham. All are served with a nice side dish of marinara. If you go for a Calzone or the stuffed pizza, you may opt to eat them with a fork and knife, as they are huge.

As I mentioned before, the entrees come with your choice of soup or salad. The salads are basic, but I tend to go for the Romeo's salad (walnuts, cranberries, and Gorgonzola on top of mixed greens and served with a raspberry vinaigrette.)

The soups, though, are made fresh in house daily. Usually, you'll find a white bean or minestrone, but tonight, it was a sausage and pepper that we'd never seen before. The broth was evocative of minestrone, but the seasonings had a nice, spicy flavor. Soup and salad are served with a dense, semolina bread. It has a garlic butter served on it, but it may be the weakest thing served when you dine here.

Now the food sounds wonderful and you're right to think you will roll out of Romeo's, but save room, because Manuela could easily open a bakery and have an avid following. From fresh made cream puffs (filled with fresh chocolate, cream or strawberry), to buttery jam tarts you can see as soon as you walk in the door, she has a gift for making desserts.

Two of my absolute favorites:
Italian Rainbow cookies

These fresh made ones were far superior to the bakery favorites I must get every time we're in NY, but they're time consuming, so she doesn't do them very often.

Meanwhile, we have dubbed this cake better than our incredible wedding cake. Lemoncello is a dense cake with light, creamy filling. We've learned to split one slice between us, because it is so filling.

The tiramisu has yet to sit unmolested for me to get a picture. All four of us agree that it is the lightest filling we've ever had in one. Even the Spumoni comes with a homemade cookie on top.

If you're in Lakeland, and you want to know what real Italian food is like-trust me. Romeo's is the real deal. Odds are high that you'll become regulars, too.

Romeo's Pizza & Pasta on Urbanspoon


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