Di Roma Cucina is a much-appreciated island — almost a refuge — amid a sea of restaurant chains. Just a few blocks to the north, there are branches of both El Torito and El Pollo Inka. To the south, there’s the Black Bear Diner, a cutely coy name, since the Black Bear is far too big to be a “diner.” And across the street, there’s the Olive Garden, which is an Italian chain that cranks out Italian food that would puzzle the eaters of Italy. This is pasta at its most Americanized — which is not necessarily a good thing, not at all.
By contrast, Di Roma would be recognized, with ease and pleasure, in any piazza in Italy. It sits in a free-standing building that, in the past, was home to a trio of Asian Fusion destination restaurants — Symphonie, Shiki and Yamabuki. That was then. This is now. And now, the cooking of choice is closer to Mediterranean Fusion, thanks to a menu that cheerfully roams all over the region.
Di Roma Cucina is a classic Italian restaurant, defined by the presence of pizza and pasta, along with calamari fritti and caprese. But those Italian crowd-pleasers are just part of the mix. Meandering through the offerings you’ll find a handful of burgers for lunch, a Greek salad and lamb gyros.
Once again, at lunch, there are six pita sandwiches, nine subs and 10 “gourmet” sandwiches. Plenty to choose from! You can get a pizza topped with pineapple and Canadian bacon — which would probably give locals conniptions over there. Over here, it’s pretty much expected. (And the notion of pineapple on pizza makes me wonder…why? Vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce would only be a bit more unsettling!)
Di Roma is a comfortably spare room: white walls, polished wood floors, flowers in vases, brightly colored paintings on the wall, comfortable tables — many for two. It’s a romantic setting, a restaurant in which to lose yourself in your companion’s smile, and the shared experience of some very good food, along with a modest wine list that’s mostly Italian, but not all. (In California, respect must be paid to our local vintages!)
There are placemats rather than tablecloths, which is pretty much SOP these days. There’s a wide pass window between the kitchen and the single dining room, that allows you to catch glimpses of several chefs doing what they do. There’s a TV to one side of the kitchen window, which seems a bit out of place amid all that stark whiteness.
But really, the point is the food. And it sure is different — though in a familiar way. I loved caprese. I’ve always loved caprese. The cleanness of a plate of soft, sweet bufala mozzarella and sliced tomatoes, flavored with basil leaves and a bit of balsamic — wonderful!
But the caprese at Di Roma, which is properly described as a “caprese plate,” is something else again. It’s about twice the size of most capreses, a big plate of mozzarella and tomato slices, floating atop a sea of dressing, topped with lots of sliced parmesan, with squiggles of balsamic over it all. It’s unexpectedly substantial; along with some warm bread, it could make for a good light lunch. But then, there’s so much more.
The pizzas and the pastas are pretty much as expected; aside from the pineapple, which is quirky mostly to me, there’s nothing especially oddball among the pies. And the pastas run to the world of marinara, Alfredo and pesto. But who would have expected an appetizer of the grilled meat combo of gyros appetizer, along with a gyros pita — a funny thing that arrives wrapped up like a baby, swaddled in paper, which holds a sandwich with many ingredients all happily living together. Unwrap the pita, and it springs open from the pressure of having so much packed inside. It’s really a knife-and-fork sandwich, for if you pick it up as is, it will probably fall apart. You have to deconstruct it to eat it — which isn’t a bad thing. It’s just, you know…a thing.
This is a neighborhood Italian restaurant, with a neighborhood defined more by the cars driving by than by the locals living down the street. It’s decidedly, almost aggressively, not trendy. It’s a local shop, with reasonable prices, and a menu of old favorites — and new favorites as well. And with a branch of the Tuesday Morning chain next door, which is what’s known as an “off-price retailer.”
You know what you’ll get at Di Roma— you can count on the menu. If you need a little quirk, you never know what you’ll find at Tuesday Morning. No matter what day of the week it is.
Di Roma Cucina
- Rating: 3 stars
- Address: 23863 Hawthorne Blvd., Torrance
- Information: 310-378-9999; www.diromacucina.com
- Cuisine: Italian
- When: Lunch and dinner, Monday through Saturday
- Details: Beer and wine; reservations helpful
- Atmosphere: A calm outpost from the shopping and chain restaurant mania of Hawthorne Boulevard, this sanctuary offers a modest menu of classic Italian dishes, along with sundry gyros and kabobs, served in a peaceful, relaxed setting.
- Prices: About $35 per person
- Suggested dinner dishes: 7 Starters ($9-$15), 5 Salads ($12-$14), 11 Pastas ($17-$29), 7 Personal Pizzas ($13-$18), 9 Entrees ($18-$28); for lunch: 10 Sandwiches ($15), 6 Pitas ($10-$14), 9 Subs ($14-$15), 7 Burgers ($12-$16)
- Credit cards: MC, V
- What the stars mean: 4 (World class! Worth a trip from anywhere!), 3 (Most excellent, even exceptional. Worth a trip from anywhere in Southern California.), 2 (A good place to go for a meal. Worth a trip from anywhere in the neighborhood.) 1 (If you’re hungry, and it’s nearby, but don’t get stuck in traffic going.) 0 (Honestly, not worth writing about.)