My Dinner with Fabio Coppola (Restaurant Review: Roma Deli)
Roma Deli has been a centerpiece for traditional Italian food for as long as I’ve lived in Las Vegas.
Roma has also weathered some significant changes during this past year. It was recently purchased by new ownership. When a restaurant is doing just fine, as was the case before with Roma, making changes is not necessarily a good thing. An “Under New Management” sign is often a red flag that something’s wrong, or things are about to go downhill soon. Sadly, when most decent restaurants are sold off as prey, new owners step-in and reduce quality in order to cut costs. Then, they wonder why they’re empty a few months later.
I’d visited Roma perhaps 60-70 times over the past decade (ten years multiplied by an average of one visit about every two months = 60). Every previous meal either met or exceeded my expectations. Four dozen visits — not once did I ever leave disappointed. Sure, the old-world decor, with tile floors and rickety chairs, was spartan. The inside looked more like a local market than a full-fledged restaurant. But service was always reliable and the food consistently delivered on quality, taste, value, and authenticity.
Why mess with success? The reset button wasn’t necessary.
The identity of Roma’s new ownership wasn’t exactly a mystery. In fact, I know the three primary investors quite well. Fabio Coppola, Max Pescatori, and Todd Brunson (all well-known Las Vegas poker pros) combined their bankrolls and purchased a controlling interest in the flagship store located a few blocks east of the Jones-Spring Mountain intersection, on the edge of what’s known loosely as Chinatown. There’s another Roma Deli, at Sahara and Durango which remains under old management (Note: It’s also very good).
I have an equal dose affection and respect for Coppola, Pescatori, and Brunson. But running a successful restaurant isn’t like pulling off a $10,000 bluff at the poker table. It requires a completely different skill set so rarefied that about 85 percent of all new restaurants close within three years. To be frank, I wasn’t sure what to expect the next time I visited “Roma Deli 2.0.”
Intentionally, I skipped numerous invitations to dine at Roma Deli over the past six months, offered by more than a dozen friends and associates. I preferred to re-acquaint myself with this old culinary friend at the right time, with the proper host. Fabio Coppola’s dinner invitation to join him on a Friday night became the perfect storm of excitement and expectation.
If you want to really know someone, take them out to dinner.
Better yet, have them take you to dinner. It’s cheaper. Especially when your gracious host is the owner of the place.
The first major difference I noticed about Roma Deli from previous visits was the decor had been vastly updated. A wooden floor had replaced the dingy old tile. Tabletops were now glass. The garden room had expanded, and for the first time, outdoor seating was available. Buzzing refrigerators along the walls had been replaced by half booths and tasteful Italian-themed artwork. RTV playing non-stop on televisions blasting Italian programming that only the staff watched was tuned to ESPN. The new Roma looked much classier and cozier. Roma also expanded from serving only wine and beer to a full-service bar.
Fabio reserved the best table in the house for us, located next to a well-illuminated deli counter steps away from a busy kitchen. Dinner began with a hearty Barbaresco wine, from Italy. Always one to display some fanfare, Fabio insisted the wine be decanted first, so as to breath and release the full bouquet of flavors.
My disdain for Italian reds is widely known. Even Fabio knew this, as a regular reader. But a proper dinner guest always shackles his personal biases and respects the host and his wishes. When in Roma, err make that “when in Roma” deference to authority is the norm. Well, what a marvelous discovery the Barbaresco turned out to be (particularly after about 30 minutes decanted).
Over the course of three hours of conversation, I learned the following things about my host, Fabio:
(1) Fabio was born in Rimini on Italy’s east coast. But he has three Italian hometowns — Rimini, Rome, and Naples. He lived in all three cities as a child before immigrating to the United States.
(2) Fabio has never considered himself a full-time poker pro with lofty aspirations of fame and fortune. Rather, he’s used poker to earn extra money and meet lots of interesting people. Some of those people, including Max and Todd, became business associates.
(3) Fabio conveyed that voted for Donald Trump, but also expressed objections to many of his actions and policies. Oddly enough, this past year Fabio’s first choice for president was Bernie Sanders. Reflecting a paternalistic view of politics which is quite common among native-born Italians (based on my experiences), Fabio declared, “What America really needs right now is a grandfather everyone can look up to….someone to take care of a large family with a lot of internal arguments and conflict. That’s the way I see it.”
(4) Sometime soon, Fabio expects to open up a chain of Italian coffee shops around Las Vegas, serving genuine pastries and lunch fare. He’s already picked out a few locations.
(5) One of the most interesting topics of our detailed discussion was a debate about having children. Most manly conversations don’t include this topic (I don’t recall ever discussing this subject before). However, given that I’m now age 55 and Fabio is 42, he was innately curious to know from someone older and who’s been married many years about having children. He wanted to know if I/we had regrets about deciding not to do this. I shared my perspectives with him (which will remain private for now). He noted that when he asked people the same question about having kids — when they were able to speak honestly — the majority stated they would have chosen instead NOT to have children. This was perhaps the most interesting topic of the night, aside from the wine and dinner.
Update: Oh one more thing, I almost forgot! Fabio is a distant relative of famed movie director Francis Ford Coppola, who shares the same last name.
One of the many delights of my dining experience was meeting Leo, now the head chef at Roma. Leo came out of the kitchen and spent considerable time with us. I learned that Leo had previously been the chef at the famed “1212” restaurant in Santa Monica (Los Angeles). Fabio and the Roma Deli ownership team coaxed him into moving to Las Vegas and trying a new culinary venture.
The staple of all Italian cooking is the house sauce. It’s the foundation. Without a good sauce, everything else crumbles. If the house tomato sauce misses, nothing else can make up for the disappointment. Every Italian restaurant (and chef’s) sauce is different. In a sense, a sauce is like wine. No two are the same.
I’m outraged by how bad (and mostly bland) most house sauces are at many Italian restaurants, not just in Las Vegas but all over the country. It’s like these fake Italian places open up a giant can of Hunt’s Tomato Sauce and presto! That’s it. I can’t fathom how some Italian restaurants take any pride in what they’re doing. This is an abominable culinary crisis and gives Italian cooking a bad name. By the way, don’t even get me started on how many lousy overrated Italian restaurants serving bland sauce exist in the phony meccas of Italian cooking like New York and Philadelphia. I won’t go there. A different topic and rant for another day.
Roma gets it right. It serves a house sauce that’s almost blood orange in color, with the perfect consistency and taste. Not too acidy (the sure sign of a cheap sauce) but rather filled with a progression of savory tastes depending on the pairing.
In the past, I’ve tried about two-thirds of Roma’s menu choices, which are quite extensive. On this night, I enjoyed two appetizers (antipasti plate — with sauteed red peppers, fresh eggplant, black olives, sliced prosciutto, and an assortment of cheeses) and some delicious arancini (best described as stuffed rice balls with ground beef).
Determined to continue my flirtation with trying to go vegetarian (I eat meat only a few times a week — trying slowly to phase out animal products from my diet), I ordered a specialty primavera item that was custom made just for me. I’d had this garlic/broccoli/olive oil/capellini dish made al dente by the cook many times previously, and Leo was happy to tackle the latest challenge of pleasing Las Vegas’ most demanding amateur reviewer.
My custom dish was outstanding. Roma is willing to make any dish upon request. Try that next time you dine at Olive Garden. Carnevino sure won’t do that. This is why I love places like Roma.
My “going vegetarian” aspirations were sabotaged when Fabio totally surprised me with our main course, which I learned was to be shared. A heaping stack of fresh lamb chops, perfectly seasoned and scrumptious, were put on display in the center of our table. I temporarily ditched the vegan experiment and morphed into a caveman beast, clutching the rib of a dead animal in my right hand as I licked juicy meat like a starving wolf in the wild.
The lamb chops were accompanied by a platter of sliced whole potatoes, perfectly sauteed in butter. Snappy carrots braised in olive oil topped with a dash of parsley minimally redeemed my good standing as a pseudo-vegetarian. Question: If I eat double the carrots, is all forgiven about me devouring the lamb?
Speaking of butter, this is another of my odd proclivities. Any (northern) Italian restaurant that doesn’t serve real butter with bread should be shut down and burned to the ground. I’m all for the faux-olive oil and vinegar thing you now see so frequently. But any real Italian place serving primarily American clientele must make butter an easy option. Real butter. Not shit margarine. And not olive oil pouring college students with accents from Indiana.
Without asking, Roma served up piping hot bread, topped with a dusting of flour, like it had come out of the oven five minutes earlier. Bread was served in a basket wrapped in a white tablecloth. And the butter. La vita e bella. Life is beautiful.
Dinner was topped off with a slice of fresh homemade ricotta cheesecake, accompanied by shots of double expresso. Boring predictable cheesecake is a plentiful dime a dozen in this town, but fresh ricotta is much a rarer find. Consistent with an extensive in-house bakery that displays an assortment of pastries, cakes, and cookies (the house specialty), Roma nailed the dessert to perfection.
Fabio told me one of the things he respects most about my writings is the brutal honesty I usually deliver.
He’s about to get more of that now.
If there’s one serious concern I have with Roma, it’s the pricing which is slightly higher than most off-the-Strip Italian-themed restaurants. Yes, I know better-quality ingredients and talented kitchen staff costs money. The prices must be higher. But I worry this could inhibit growing a successful business in a fickle city that’s highly-competitive when it comes to restaurants, especially with so many ex-pat Italians and their resident descendants.
Then again, Roma is not going for the crowd that thinks Olive Garden is real Italian food. At Roma, most pasta dishes are priced close to $20. The higher-end steaks and cuts range from $30-40. Formal dining joints with white tablecloths can get away with charging high prices. But Roma remains a neighborhood deli, and despite all the upgrades and best intentions remains a deli, and so one minor criticism some could have upon a quick inspection of the menu are the prices. A decent meal here for two, when done right, will run about $100. To be fair, Roma also offers lunch specials which are much cheaper and still just as good.
Judging by the crowds I witnessed, Roma is doing just fine though — and for the time being perhaps my concerns with the pricing are in the minority I’m thrilled to be wrong about this. Fabio stated he’s trying to expand his night business and might soon introduce a late-night happy hour (reverse happy hour) with specials after a certain hour. This is all in the works. Las Vegas could certainly use a great late-night restaurant that isn’t Chinese or a coffee shop.
Roma appears to be trying to compete with Nora’s which is nearby and probably the best-known upscale Italian restaurant on the west side. Nora’s offers a much fancier atmosphere. But the service is far better at Roma. Based on my visits to both, Roma’s food is better, also.
When making comparisons, Roma is far superior in value than any of the outrageously expensive and overrated so-called “Italian restaurants” tempting tourists on The Strip, most notably the abomination known as Carnevino anchored at the Venetian. Why anyone would subject themselves to snooty servers, bastardized Italian fare, crowds of conventioneers, and double the rip-off prices is totally beyond me. Some advice: Skip the likes of Carnevino, and try out a real authentic family-owned business run by hands-on people who care about their food — and that’s Roma Deli.
My conclusion: Roma Deli is one of the very few Italian restaurants I’ve visited which successfully bridges both northern and traditional southern fare, blended into the farm-to-table techniques of Tuscany, combined with the culinary sophistication of Rome. Add a market with ample desserts, meats, and cheeses, with a full bar, and that makes for the perfect refuge.
Thanks, Fabio. The food was surpassed only by the host and company.
A final word: At dinner, we both did many movie impersonations. This is me doing my best/worst Anthony Hopkins playing Hannibal Lecter from “Silence of the Lambs.”
“Ah, Clarice….a census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti. Sssss….ssssss…..sssssss.”
Writer’s Note: During this visit, I did not take notes. Fabio was not expecting me to write a restaurant review. I think most of the details here are correct and will update any errors pointed out to me.
Correction: An earlier version of this article used the word “vegan.” This has been corrected to “vegetarian.”