Mambo Italiano, Roman Village style

A girl came down from Napoli
because she missed the scenery
The native dances and the charming songs
But wait a minute something’s wrong

But what was wrong in this charming joint, complete with red leather booths, a banquet hall, and a sign advertising their cocktail lounge? I was sitting at the Roman Village, an Italian restaurant in Dearborn near the ever-running Ford River Rouge plant and gazing at the strange motley of things.

One would think that with a name like the Roman Village, waiters would be running around in togas and the menu would be in Latin. Instead, it looked exactly like the kind of place in a gangster movie where any second a guy with a machine gun is going to blow in and send the meatballs and pasta flying, while bullets ricochet and everyone hits the floor. “Ah, my cannoli!” someone cries. But I am getting ahead of myself.
The restaurant was decorated as the classic 1960s Italian American restaurant (although there were no candles in old wine jugs with wicker baskets over them), except the clientele included large Arab families and Michiganders in jeans and pull-over fleeces. Our young waiter was ever eager to perfect the authenticity of such a joint, adding what he thought was a New York Italian accent over his Michigan vowels and pushing a what-a-deal whole bottle of wine half-off! (In all fairness, Nick and I succumbed and bought the whole bottle – it turns out in Michigan you are allowed to take whatever is left home with you.)

As for the food, it was better than I expected, given the general outlook of the place (I’m still getting over my banquet hall snobbery) – I was afraid I might be eating cardboard bread with fake Parmesan or meatballs that tasted like sawdust. It was far from the Italian restaurants I had eaten at in Italy, either in the north or the south, as the selection of vegetables was rather lacking in good Michigan fashion and the overall emphasis a bit too heavy for Mediterranean cuisine.

But the gnocci I had were decent, the sauce that came on it was great: a tomato cream sauce with mushrooms and pancetta. Nick’s shrimp primavera was basic, but the garlic sang through, making it thoroughly enjoyable, if a little plain. They also offer homemade gluten-free pasta, if ordered as the main dish, which made me think someone at the restaurant is more on board with food trends or someone in the family has a gluten allergy. The manager even came over to tell us the bottle of wine we had ordered was from the family’s hometown in Tuscany.
As for the cannoli, the heralded dessert and perhaps my all-time favorite pastry, the Roman Village succeeded in making something taste like cardboard. The pastry was dry and overcooked while the filing was overly cream-based instead of letting the ricotta shine.
It does make me happy to see that there are a multitude of Italian restaurants in the Detroit area, reflecting all the immigrants in the late 19th century. Having some Italian blood, I find most Italian restaurants lacking, either in price or general cuisine.
I would also be willing to go back to the Roman Village to find the cocktail lounge advertised on the sign and the characters that might inhabit it.
BONUS: I got my first Dearborn Hipster sighting as two guys in their late 20s walked in, ready to eat lots of cheap pasta or try to discover where the name Roman Village came from if it was a Tuscan restaurant.

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