Weaknesses come in all shapes and sizes. One of my biggest is an inability to turn down a meal at a red sauce joint. My fondness for Italian-American food probably has roots that Freud would love to explore – especially since neither side of my family is Italian. If I had to guess, I’d venture that some of my attraction comes from the cuisine’s unusual status as a true hybrid, and a fairly equal one.

Think about it: Without tomatoes and peppers (not to mention winter-hardy wheat) from the Americas, combined with medieval Italian olive oil and cheesemaking traditions, even a simple bowl of spaghetti in marinara sauce would be impossible. Red sauce Italian gets a lot of criticism for being a culinary mongrel that neither country wants to own, but when it’s done well, it shows how special a flavor-driven, mix-and-match approach can be.

With my proclivities in mind, you might imagine that Rose’s Italian in Windham, a place sometimes referred to as Rose’s Old World Italian Restaurant, would be irresistible to me – and you’d be right. I walked in looking for a hunched Italian nonna in a shapeless black dress and head scarf. But Rose doesn’t live here anymore. Fourteen years ago, after running the restaurant for the better part of a decade, she sold the establishment to one of her chefs, Redi Dede. While he changed up the menu in response to customer suggestions and tweaked its interior, Dede retained the restaurant’s name in honor of his former boss.

Rose’s menu covers conventional red sauce territory from veal Marsala ($18) to mozzarella-topped garlic bread ($4.50), and thanks to the restaurant’s brick oven – a 900-degrees-Fahrenheit, wood-fired colossus that devours two cords of wood every month – a list of pies longer than what you’ll find at some pizzerias.

Justin Lakin works a pizza dough.

Justin Lakin works a pizza dough. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“Making pizza in that thing…it is really an art unto itself. Things burn really quick, so you have to think a lot and pay close attention,” Dede said. “But the skill comes with age.” He and his team use that hard-won expertise with the white-hot oven to great effect, producing pizzas – like a garlic pie ($9.95 small, $12.95 large) we ate as an appetizer – that are crisp, covered in blistering bubbles of sauce and browned cheese, and with just enough char to add smoky flavor without tasting burned. The high temperature also creates an Einstein’s paradox where your pizzas seem to arrive at your table practically before you have finished ordering them.

Alongside the pizza, as well as any entrée you order, Rose’s serves a house salad with loads of thick-cut chunks of cucumber, unseasonably good tomatoes, sliced black olives and shaved red onion, all dressed in an inoffensive, neutral vinaigrette. I’ll admit that I expected a sloppy, all-iceberg salad when I saw our server set down chintzy woven wood bowls, the sort that you might remember from your youth, or from watching 1980s movies featuring teens playing Pac Man. But I was happily surprised by a salad that was worth eating – if perhaps not worth ordering off the menu.

The salad, and especially those bowls, also suit the retro atmosphere of the restaurant perfectly, with its naugahyde booths and low-pile, wall-to-wall dining room carpet. All the red sauce, family restaurant signs and signifiers are here, down to a doily-lined dessert tray of outsourced, Saran-wrapped pies and cakes (all $6), as well as shakers of Parmesan cheese on the table. So even if you have never been to Rose’s before, it feels immediately familiar.

Much of the menu produces the same impression, especially the classics, like meat lasagna ($15), made up of layers of uncased sweet sausage, ground beef, bechamel, ricotta and plenty of mozzarella and marinara to top it all off. Be warned: only those with Olympic appetites (and a very high tolerance for salt) will be able to get through the outsized portion. Even then, it might be hard to get past the rustic plating that made the dish resemble a melted print of Leighton’s Flaming June.

The Ziti al Ferro was colorful and appealing.

The Ziti al Ferro was colorful and appealing. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

On the other hand, Ziti al Ferro ($20), with moist pieces of chicken, sausage, broccoli, tomatoes and shrimp, all sautéed with white wine and served over ziti, was colorful and appealing, if a little undersalted. And while the dish did include, as Dede described it, “a big, manly amount of meat,” its vegetables and clear, garlicky sauce made it seem unintentionally lighter than many of Rose’s tomato-and-cheese-based dishes.

Not that lightness should be the goal. After all, who goes to an Italian-American restaurant looking for anything other than comfort food, and maybe even leftovers to cover the following day’s lunch? Had I wanted to, I could have made two or three more meals from my Pollo San Lorenzo ($19) – an Italian-American culinary supergroup on the order of the Foo Fighters or The Three Tenors – consisting of marinara-and-mozzarella topped chicken Parmesan, jumbo four-cheese ravioli, and either a meatball or Italian sausage.

“I was making lunch one day and decided I didn’t want a big helping of pasta. I wanted ravioli, but I wanted some meat with it. So I put them all on a plate, and when one of my customers walked by and said, ‘I really want one of those!’ we put it on the menu to see if it sold. It did,” Dede explained.

Apart from the perfectly average ravioli, the dish’s two other components were marvelous on their own: the pounded, breaded, deep-fried chicken cutlet that remained crisp outside and miraculously juicy inside, and the chubby Italian beef sausage, full of fennel, sage and basil. Joined together in three-part harmony with a generous slathering of super-chunky marinara, the dish became much greater than that sum of its parts.

Perhaps it was invented by happy accident, but Pollo San Lorenzo stays true to the central concept of Italian-American cuisine: juxtaposing elements purely in the interest of flavor. “I named it after a small celebration in Italy, because it’s a little of everything: chicken Parm, ravioli, meat. It’s like a little Italian festival on a plate,” Dede said. I never would have guessed by looking at the menu, but Dede is onto something: his triptych of a dish is really a red sauce party. Consider this your invitation.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at [email protected] and on Twitter @AndrewRossME.

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