Forest Hills Roman Bistro 33 is old-school, quality food without chain-eatery touches
Just as you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, you probably shouldn't judge a restaurant by its website.
Still, the eyeball-punishing mess that is Roman Bistro 33's website didn't exactly bode well for the new-ish Forest Hills restaurant. Pointless intro page, check. Loud, annoying video pop-ups that you can't turn off — check. Grammatical errors, check. Clashing fonts, unnecessary quotation marks, random words in ALL CAPS, important information — like the address — hidden, check.
Still, a friend who lived in the neighborhood wanted to go, and had heard good things about the food. He wasn't misled. In this instance at least, old-fashioned word-of-mouth actually trumped the Internet.
Forget the website. They put in the effort and updates where it actually counts — the food, wine and beer. It's not easy to find good, unique, non-national-chain dining in the eastern suburbs, so Roman Bistro 33's presence is quite welcome.
Roman Bistro could only be more “old school” if it was located in an old school. Instead, the large, many-roomed restaurant was once a Studebaker showroom. The front room is a wide-open lounge, with a white piano that anyone is invited to play, but there seemed to be a regular (or at least a ringer) on the keys the night we visited. But any classic nightclubby elegance is offset by a vast array of flatscreen TVs tuned to sports.
“If you imagine the platform in the dining area, that's where the Studebakers used to sit in the window,” executive chef Chris Klink says.
The ample space — more of a complex of connected rooms, plus an outdoor patio — allows a lot of uses at once. Roman Bistro 33 takes advantage of all of them.
“Later on, at night, when normal dinner is done, the bar picks up,” Klink says. “Then, the cigar bar and bottle shop is great, which has 80-plus craft beer bottles to go. You can sit back there and enjoy a beer. Servers can bring back a good whiskey, scotch or cognac while you're enjoying a cigar.”
There are even plans for the parking lot.
“My plan is to do a pig roast for Memorial Day in the parking lot,” Klink says. “Fresh corn on the cob, beans, cornbread. We want to do it once a month during the summer. I have the roaster ready — just waiting to get all the OKs.”
The number 33 mysteriously recurs in various permutations throughout the restaurant.
“It has some significance to the owner, Mike Roman,” Klink says. “His dad was born in 1933. There are 33 different draft beers, 33 different wines.”
“Our vision is more like the Italian-American cuisine, but bringing a little more Mediterranean side of things,” Klink says. “You get Greece, like the hummus platter, Italian dishes like antipasto and grilled artichokes, some menu items from Spanish cuisine. Seafood is my background (Klink previously worked at Mitchell's Fish Market) — that's where I do my daily catch of the day — fresh seafood in-season.”
The bright colors of the Beet Salad ($8) ended up being a good way to start. Ours was a little overdressed with a good lemon basil vinaigrette, but the combination of a good goat cheese, arugula and fresh assorted beets redeemed it.
One dish that goes well beyond the Mediterranean is a curious creation called “Roman Style French Fry Poutine” ($9) a variation on the French Canadian junk food/delicacy that was surprisingly delicious. It didn't look like much, but the hand-cut fries were perfect (thin and slightly crispy), topped with deliciously savory demi-glace (instead of the traditional gravy) and cheese curds. The curds started melting into a mess almost immediately, but still tasted terrific.
The Prosciutto Wrapped Scallops ($13) with grilled radicchio were thick and juicy, and just perhaps a touch too sour and acidic with lemon oil. However, the Wild Mushroom Stuffed Ravioli ($14) was excellent — golden half-moons of light, soft pasta, with a surprisingly light red-wine demi cream sauce.
The Roasted Vegetable Flatbread ($10) was covered in delicious yellow squash and zucchini, and parmesan and asiago cheese. Usually, a thin flatbread would quickly be reduced to a soggy mess from by this much juicy zucchini, but this was skillfully avoided by removing the soft middles and seeds. The crust was thin and crispy, yet held together nicely. However, some globs of uncooked flour clinging to the bottom made for a few stray unpleasant bites.
Roman Bistro 33 also makes a credible Cannoli ($6), drizzled in chocolate, in the unlikely event that you have any room left.
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7901.