Romeo’s Italian Grill & Bar is one of the latest chain restaurants to open on the north end of Loop 1604. But it needs an overhaul if it’s going to succeed on a strip with at least two other chain Italian restaurants, Romano’s Macaroni Grill and Johnny Carino’s, nearby.
Let’s start with the exterior of the restaurant, which doesn’t do a great deal to invite you in. All you can see from the street are the words “Italian Grill & Bar.” The word “Romeo’s” is lost in a heart logo to the side and the type is too small to read, even when you’re within 20 feet or so of the restaurant. So, don’t tell your friends to meet you at Romeo’s; if they don’t know where the restaurant is, they’re not likely to find it too easily.
If they do catch up with you and order wrong, they may not want to stay friends too much longer – or at least they will not likely let you pick the restaurant in the near future. (Believe me, my friends' comments on some of the restaurant's shortcomings were far less polite than mine.)
Problems for us, on two separate visits, began shortly after we sat down. That’s when our pleasant, if adequate, server greeted us with the usual seasoned oil and bread. The bread was quite good, warm and yeasty, but the oil was yellowish, not green, and had little discernable flavor, so you know it was far from EVOO.
But a lack of flavor is better than what we were presented with when an order of caramelized sausages arrived. Slices of Italian sausage caked in a corn syrupy sauce gave off an acrid, chemical flavor that practically double-dog-dared you to take another bite. I revisited the plate after it had cooled down to room temperature, and the incompatible flavors were even more evident.
A bowl of chicken cappellini soup might have landed in the plus category, if the soup had been hot and if it had been made with a touch of salt in the stock to bring out its flavors.
Missing salt was also apparent in a woeful chicken piccata dish. The chicken breast had been grilled to the point of desiccation, leaving a sawdust-like texture to the lacquered meat.
The same unfortunately was true of the pork loin, which arrived with an odd pesto sauce on the plate. Instead of using fresh basil leaves, this concoction seemed to be made from dried basil and, as a result, had acquired a bitterness that was off-putting. On both occasions, I shoved the meat to the side and concentrated on the asparagus spears.
More dishes in need of help were a Caesar salad, made with the tough, outer leaves of Romaine; a sausage and peppers pasta dish that suffered from too much uncooked wine, too much tomato sauce and too much sugar; and a bland lasagna that was cold at the center despite arrive in a clay dish that radiated heat.
We did like a spinach salad that had fresh leaves and bacon tossed in just enough dressing to coat the leaves but not drown them. It was coveted by everyone else at the table because of its fresh, pristine flavors.
A sausage pizza also had possibilities, thanks to the meat used. But so much cornmeal had stuck to the bottom crust that it affected the flavor.
Romeo's has an attractive bar in one corner with an extensive array of bottles, but my friends and I chose to focus on the food instead.
The one dessert we tried was even further off course than the rest of what we sampled. It was a cannoli, and the cream filling had so much almond extract that it brought back memories of Agatha Christie’s and Erle Stanley Gardner’s warnings about cyanide poisoning. We survived the cannoli; but if Romeo’s is to survive, someone in the kitchen needs to get to work.
Romeo’s Italian Grill & Bar
115 E. Loop 1604
San Antonio, TX 78258
Open daily for lunch and dinner