Thirty years ago, the mention of “Italian food” usually brought to mind lackluster pizza, forgettable Chianti, and so-so spaghetti and meatballs. All that changed dramatically when the Rizzo family opened Café Roma and began serving authentic dishes from all regions of Italy — from Piedmont to Rome to Sicily.
The now-iconic restaurant got its start in May 1980 on Railroad Avenue in San Luis Obispo, a location chosen in part “because my husband (the late Giuseppe Rizzo) said that in Europe all the best restaurants are by the train station,” said Maria Rosa Rizzo, the venerable matriarch of the family.
In 1998, Café Roma moved a couple doors closer to the station, into a new structure that the family designed from the ground up, gutting an abandoned building and creating a savvy space reminiscent of restaurants in Italy. There’s a classy bar area and an airy main room with tall ceilings, a spacious banquet room downstairs, and a patio for al fresco dining that son Marco Rizzo called “an integral part of the restaurant.”
For the past several years, longtime chef Ignacio Carrasco has aptly shouldered the responsibility of maintaining Café Roma’s high culinary standards, but the bar was initially set by Maria Rosa, who spent almost two decades as the creative force in the kitchen.
Many recipes came directly from either her family or Giuseppe’s, so over the years Café Roma’s patrons came to know and appreciate true Italian fare such as beef carpaccio, house-made lasagna with béchamel and rich Bolognese sauce, and Cannelloni “Maria Rosa” with chicken and spinach.
There is spaghetti to be found at Café Roma, but it will likely be served with sauce made from imported San Marzano tomatoes or with a creamy carbonarastyle sauce tossed with crispy pancetta and pecorino cheese. You can also order pizza — choose from the ever-popular Margherita with tomato, buffalo mozzarella and basil; or go for the Signor Mason with gorgonzola, sweet caramelized onions and spicy arugula.
Many of Maria Rosa’s distinctive dishes have become fixtures on the Café Roma menu, as have classics such as Caesar salad, linguini with clams and veal scallopini piccata.
However, “about 40 percent of the menu changes seasonally,” explained Marco, and the nightly three-course, $30 prix fixe menu changes monthly. Some upcoming dishes on both menus will feature “lighter items, maybe something like rabbit with polenta and pasta with fresh vegetables.”
Typically, those seasonal changes also showcase local ingredients such as beets and baby spinach in colorful salads, chanterelle mushrooms in raviolis and risottos, and Hearst Ranch grass-fed ground beef in ragus and lasagnas. The restaurant started using Hearst Ranch meat “about three years agobecause we want to support local products, and I like that it’s natural, hormone-free and antibiotic-free,” said Marco.
Though she may not spend as much time in Café Roma’s kitchen as she used to, Maria Rosa continues to be a constant presence at the restaurant, and still travels to Italy once or twice a year, spinning her experiences into new recipes for Café Roma. One such dish that will probably appear on the restaurant’s warm-weather menu is a swordfish carpaccio — fresh fish marinated in lemon juice, olive oil and spices, then thinly sliced and served with lemon wedges and capers.
When asked if the 30 years of Café Roma had gone according to plan, Maria Rosa replied, “I don’t really know. I never thought about it, I just kept going, but we owe many thanks to the community. It’s unbelievable how the years go by, but it’s been very rewarding.”