Karen Morrill peeked around the corner, through the open pocket doors, into the main dining room of the Roma Café.

“Oh, this is so exciting,” said Morrill, a 58-year-old Scarborough resident who works for the city of South Portland.

Morrill hadn’t set foot in the Congress Street restaurant, which reopened three weeks ago, since 1989, when the room was decorated with white table linens and crystal chandeliers. She and her ex-husband once joined her parents here every April 7, at the same table by the front window, for a special dinner to celebrate their shared anniversary.

“It’s lighter,” she said in her first critique of the new dining room. “It used to have big drapes, and the walls were dark. It’s beautiful – but they need curtains.”

The partners who recently resurrected the Roma – Mike Fraser, Guy Streitburger and Anders Tallberg – say they have been getting a lot of customers like Morrill, who want a healthy side of nostalgia served with their spaghetti and meatballs.

The first weeks of the restaurant’s second life were filled with diners who told the staff that the Roma, closed for more than a decade, was where they’d celebrated birthdays and anniversaries, held wedding rehearsal dinners and romantic Valentine’s Day celebrations, and gotten engaged. Teenagers trying to impress each other suffered through awkward prom dates at the Roma.

Streitburger, the manager, says he recently spoke with a customer who dined there regularly with his wife 60 years ago. The encounter made Streitburger realize that the new restaurant “definitely had big shoes to fill and high expectations to meet.”

Dominic Marino

“Maybe every other person who comes through the door and sits down since we’ve opened has a story,” he said.

MAKING IT

Long before Portland was a food lovers’ town with restaurants that attract national attention, there was the Roma. The old-school Italian-American restaurant was founded in downtown Portland, near Monument Square, in 1924 by an Italian immigrant named Dominic Marino, then moved farther down Congress Street in 1935. A year later, Marino moved the restaurant into the former Rines mansion, where it stayed for the next six decades or so.

In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, at least, the Roma was considered the best – and most romantic – restaurant in Portland.

“It was all very formal,” Morrill recalled. “You had to dress up.”

In the early days, it was the kind of place where the owner seated people himself and, genuinely interested, asked their names. It was said that if you ate at the Roma twice, Dominic Marino remembered you for life. According to a 1981 newspaper article, opera legend Mario Lanza ate at the Roma whenever he came to Portland to sing.

Marino, according to old Press Herald stories, was born in Peschici, a seaside resort town located on the little bump of land that extends into the Adriatic Sea above the bootheel of Italy. He was just 17, with only a third-grade education, when he left for America in 1914. After many miserable days at sea – the ship was infested with lice – Marino landed in New York with an extra shirt wrapped around a moldy onion, a hunk of goat cheese, “an iron hard heel of a loaf of bread,” and an extra celluloid collar. The first thing his cousin and brother, who had arrived before him, did when they met him in New York was cut his hair and burn his clothes.

The tables are laid for elegant dining at the Roma Cafe in 1978. The new Roma eschews the tablecloths but keeps the ambience. Charles H. Merrill/Press Herald file

Marino got a job shining shoes but soon moved to Montreal, where he worked as a barber’s apprentice and as a “cook’s swamper” (assistant) in a lumberjack camp outside the city. When it became clear the barber wasn’t ever going to teach him to cut hair, Marino got a job in a restaurant called (drum roll, please) the Roma Café. He started as a janitor, but soon worked his way up to busboy and assistant waiter.

Next came work as a waiter at a posh hotel. From there, he worked in restaurants in Buffalo, Washington, Detroit, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, eventually becoming a chef de rang specializing in table preparation of flambéed dishes. By 1922, Marino had opened his own coffee shop in Cleveland, where, Marino claimed in a 1981 Press Herald interview, he became the first person in the country to import an espresso machine from Italy.

This was during Prohibition, so the coffee shop was also a place where customers could count on getting a little something extra in their cup. Marino’s little speakeasy was under the protection of corrupt city officials, he told the Press Herald, but soon local racketeers declared they also wanted a piece of the action. Marino refused, according to that same 1981 interview – “I beat them up and throw them out of my place,” he said – and, one day in 1924, simply walked away from his business. He left Cleveland and came to Portland to be with his brother.

After the first version of the Roma failed, a casualty of the Depression, Marino opened a coffeehouse on Middle Street. In 1935, he moved back to Congress Street, where the Roma was reborn. The following year, he moved the restaurant into the former J. Henry Rines mansion. Marino imported olives and olive oil by the barrel, and shopped for the restaurant in Portland’s Little Italy. His sons, Richard and Michael, took over after their father retired in the early 1970s, but when the elder Marino visited, he’d make osso bucco or veal Calabrese.

In 1985, a year after their father died at age 87, the brothers sold the Roma to local businessman Peter Landrigan and his wife, who ran it until they sold the building in 2008.

ROMA RISING

In 2010, a partnership that included Burt’s Bees founder Roxanne Quimby bought the property and renovated it. They briefly established an artists’ colony, but it didn’t last long.

Meanwhile, Mike Fraser reopened the once popular Bramhall pub in the building’s basement (the Marino family originally opened the pub, which had been a storage area, back in the 1970s) and brought it back to life in 2014, all the while keeping an eye on the empty upstairs space. When Lucas St. Clair, Quimby’s son (who has offices on the second floor), told Fraser last spring that the old restaurant space was available, Fraser jumped on it. St. Clair asked him what he wanted to do there, Fraser recalled, and “I said, ‘We reopened Bramhall. Let’s reopen Roma.'”

Fraser had been a fan of Tallberg’s food at Roustabout, the Washington Avenue Italian-American restaurant that closed in January, and enlisted his help. Tallberg talked to two of the former owners – Dick Marino and Landrigan – to get some history of the place, and he looked at older menus.

Menus from the 1980s, part of a collection at the Maine Historical Society library, overwhelmingly featured Italian-American comfort food classics such as chicken marsala, fettucine alfredo and veal piccata, but also included seafood crepes, steaks and chops, and beef tenderloin with rice and mushrooms. The menu Tallberg developed for the new restaurant isn’t exactly the same – it’s 100 percent Italian-American – but is a close cousin.

Peter and Cindy Landrigan, former owners of the classic Portland restaurant The Roma, dine at the reopened reincarnation last week. The Cape Elizabeth couple were celebrating their 49th wedding anniversary over dinner with friends. Staff photo by Derek Davis

“Every time I drove by this place,” Tallberg said, “I imagined what it looked like inside and what the food would look like, and that’s exactly what we’re doing. It’s red sauce Italian with lots of lemon, lots of parsley and lots of garlic.”

There are no trendy small plates here. Portions are generous – most customers seemed to leave with take-home boxes – and moderately priced. More than half of the entrees cost under $20.

Fraser said he wants to honor the history of the restaurant, so an elegant look and good food are both important. But he deep-sixed the white linen tablecloths and added banquette seating. And it’s OK to wear jeans.

“We want the casual diner,” he said. “Dining is going in that direction. What isn’t (going away) is the chicken parm, the spaghetti and meatballs, the tagliatelle Bolognese.”

The new menu at Roma Cafe, including the updated olive plate, is a close cousin to the old one, says chef and part-owner Anders Tallberg. Staff photo by Meredith Goad

While the original restaurant had dining rooms all over the mansion, the updated Roma has 40 seats limited to the two downstairs rooms. It has cozy fireplaces flanked by green tile, a collection of wall vases filled with ferns, and candle walls – arrangements of tiny shelves with votive candles sitting on them – that flicker warmly as music plays softly. The original built-in dining room cabinets are stocked with bottles of wine and glassware. The large kitchen now does double duty, serving both the Roma and the Bramhall, which means the pub can expand its menu.

A LEGACY TO LIVE UP TO

Karen Morrill, feeling nostal-gic, started her first dinner at the Roma in 28 years with a martini, an order of clams casino, and fond memories. She remembers coming to the Roma with her family to celebrate birthdays. Her mother always had a Tom Collins. It was the kind of place that was “fancy, with coffee after dinner,” Morrill said.

Morrill and other fans of the old Roma often rave about the complimentary “olive plate” that arrived at the beginning of every meal with olives, celery, pickled vegetables and cheese. Not long after Morrill reminisced about that plate, a server brought the new version: a plate with homemade focaccia, soft and still warm; pickled vegetables; Romano cheese; and a dish of olive oil for dipping.

Morrill married in 1984 on her parents’ anniversary. On their joint anniversary dates at the Roma, Morrill always ordered the same thing: veal Parmesan. The new menu has chicken parm and several veal dishes, but no veal Parmesan. So Morrill tried the veal Milanese instead. It arrived perfectly browned and glistening, and Morrill declared it “the best veal I’ve ever had.”

The Veal Milanese is among the fare at the reopened Roma Cafe. Staff photo by Meredith Goad

She even ate the pasta that came with it, which she said she used to leave untouched when she was a kid. “The garlic in here is to die for,” she said. “I love garlic.”

Morrill stopped dining at the Roma in 1989, after her father died. Now divorced, she has no more wedding anniversaries to celebrate. But, she says, “I would definitely come back again.”

Fraser confesses that although he kept the Roma’s name as a way to attract interest in the restaurant, he didn’t think much about the expectations of returning customers like Morrill.

“The second day it hit me: There’s a lot of people who are going to expect (the old Roma), and there’s a legacy to think about when you’re doing this,” he said.

For chef Tallberg, that revelation “was a big positive…because we weren’t just the new place that happens to open up. We wanted to bring back this fixture and keep it a fixture. I’ve always loved the permanency of places like this.”

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 10:39 a.m. on Sept. 1, 2017 to reflect that Chef Tallberg refers to his menu as red sauce Italian. The date of the building’s sale by the Landrigans was also corrected.