In Rome five years ago, Stephen Henderson and his wife fell in love. Not with each other (that was a fait accompli), but with the city’s singular cuisine, shaped by its ancient roots and the humble souls who have inhabited its neighborhoods through the ages. “We especially loved the food in the Jewish Ghetto,” Henderson told me on the phone after my visits. “It was simple and comforting.”
Now, with Romulus, the 63-year-old restaurateur has brought a taste of Rome to Englewood. “Most people don’t know that there is an alternative to what they typically get at Italian restaurants in New Jersey,” he said. “And that’s what I want Romulus to give them.”
Open since August, the intimate, 52-seat dining room sports framed drawings depicting the story of Romulus and Remus, the twin brothers who founded the Eternal City. Shimmering wallpaper is awash with lemons, a favorite Roman ingredient. An elaborate copper ceiling and distressed wood floors give the space warmth and character.
Unfortunately, Henderson isn’t quite as welcoming as his environs, showing little interest in engaging with the room. It would help if he did, since his young waitstaff, while affable and eager, needs backup—occasionally fumbling orders and giving bare-bones guidance about Roman items on the menu.
In the kitchen, North Carolina-born executive chef Wade New is doing his level best to conquer Rome. Never in Italy himself, he developed his Italian-cooking chops during a six-year stint at Pazzo Pazzo in Morristown. “Before we opened [Romulus],” he told me, “I read lots of cookbooks…and came up with dishes I thought reflected the basic spirit of Roman food.”
The resulting fare reflects New’s diligence, but also his distance from the cuisine. The menu—authentic Roman at times, decidedly not at others—reflects his and Henderson’s mixed intentions. “We’re not being purists about the menu,” Henderson said. “Caesar salad isn’t Roman, but people like it. And we want to serve food people will like.”
Perhaps no starter is more emblematic of Rome than carciofo alla guida—Jewish-style baby artichokes fried crisp in olive oil. Romulus’s rendition on one night featured a few shriveled globes that were so tough they were hard to get down. On a subsequent evening, they were tender and considerably more enjoyable on their lemony bed of shaved fennel. Other appetizers would not do Romulus (or Remus) particularly proud: Hard, oily ciabatta cubes in the panzanella salad failed to soak up any of New’s lively red-wine vinaigrette. Stuffed calamari had a tasty sausage filling, but the squid itself was leathery. Pasta e fagioli was a bland bowl of soup that barely merited a third spoonful. Safer choices are the leafy salads and the fresh mozzarella and kumato salad.
Romans like their pasta simple and sturdy. Running with this notion, New turned out a winning bucatini amatriciana, its vibrant, pancetta-flecked red-pepper tomato sauce cloaking a mound of toothily perfect hollow strands. His ricotta gnocchi were tender inside, their crusts delectably nutty. A (for once) ungloppy spaghetti carbonara was generously spiked with pancetta bits. It was comforting, if not particularly memorable. Though it sounds promising, tagliarini canestelli—with bay scallops, roasted garlic and toasted bread crumbs—was a bland, starchy tangle.
New has greatest success with his proteins. Case in point is the supremely juicy pork-rib chop, its exterior burnished to crisp perfection with a zingily sweet (if not exactly Roman) coriander glaze. Salmon with artichoke and fennel flaunted a flavorful sear and a tender pink interior. New’s grilled lemon-rosemary chicken is the restaurant’s best-selling entrée; his handsome whole branzino served with a tomato vinaigrette runs a close second. His chicken cacciatore, however, was so dull and the meat so dry that it would make any Italian hunter consider going vegetarian.
For dessert, a light and lemony ricotta cheesecake lifted the spirits. Silken flourless chocolate cake was textbook good. A pretty, individual-portion Roman pear cake, however, arrived stone cold, with little flavor and its texture downright gummy. The baked Julius—with its ichocolate waffle and overly hard pistachio gelato and its Swiss meringue surface slipping every which way—was not what one would call a Roman delicacy.
Romulus occupies the space that formerly housed a Henderson catering and dining place called the Kitchen. Henderson says he may move on from Romulus once he reopens the Kitchen in New York. That leaves the restaurant’s fate largely in the hands of his ever-game executive chef. “I love a challenge,” New said. “Any time I can do something that requires me to put on my thinking cap is great.” New definitely has some thinking and learning to do. But, as they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day.Click here to leave a comment
Price Details:Appetizers, $8-$10; pastas, $15-$21; entrées, $25-$28; desserts, $8.
Ambience:Cozy and relaxing.
Service:Eager but lacking finesse.