When Roma Italian Ristorante (115 N Mission St.) did their soft opening in November, we were pleased. Like most of the community, we were just so happy to have an Italian restaurant in Sapulpa again, that we were willing to be patient as the restaurant worked out the kinks in service and atmosphere. Sure, the wait times were long, but hey, Sapulpa had fresh manicotti, again!
But as the first month of service wore on, negative reviews began to stack up and the problems that we assumed would fade as the staff got used to running the restaurant…didn’t. Long wait times, boring bread, and bagged salad were becoming an unfortunate recurrence if the Yelp reviews are to be believed.
Turns out, that was because the owner of the restaurant hadn’t actually made it to Sapulpa, yet.
“I was stuck in Texas with a broken down car,” he said. “My cousin (Florin) was getting the restaurant ready to open. I didn’t want to open, but he said ‘we need to make some money.’ It was too much for him.” Gino says his cousin knows how to cook, but he’s not shy about it: “I need to be the one in the kitchen,” he says. “Florin is good at taking care of customers.”
The real owner of Roma, who goes by Gino, is no stranger to the restaurant business and certainly no slouch in the kitchen. Gino is part Italian and part Albanian, and prior to emigrating to America in 1991, he lived with his family in Rome, where he got his start in his father’s restaurant at just 13 years old.
It wasn’t easy. “My father, he asked me to make him a chicken dish,” Gino says in a thick Italian accent. “I made it for him, and then he said, ‘come and eat with me,’ and I told him, ‘no, I don’t like it.’”
It was the wrong answer. “He hit me, and he told me ‘if you would not eat it yourself, never serve it to a customer,’” Gino said. His father then fired him from the restaurant, letting him come back three weeks later so long as he understood that he would get no special treatment for being the chef’s son.
It was a lesson that Gino has carried throughout the rest of his career, and a policy he uses at Roma’s. “My wife and daughter work here, we are a family of restauranteurs. But they understand, work is work,” he said.
Prior to coming to Sapulpa, Gino and his family operated another restaurant in Odessa called Mi Piaci. That restaurant has over 1,400 reviews on Google and is rated almost 4.5 out of 5 stars. Gino ran that restaurant for 17 years before leaving it to his brother.
How Gino landed in Sapulpa could be chalked up to almost pure luck.
As it happens, Gino says he was at River Spirit Casino and staying at Sapulpa’s Super 8 Hotel during Father’s Day weekend last summer. On Sunday, he was hungry for the food of his homeland but was astonished to find that there was no Italian restaurant in Sapulpa. “I tell my cousin, ‘come on, we’re going to drive around.’” They found the building on Mission Street and decided to go for it.
Gino says that after a tough first month, he finally has the right people in place, and things are running much better now. “Now I am ready,” he said. “We have good soup, every day. We have good food. We are ready.”
We were invited back to have lunch on a Tuesday, and were introduced to a new lunch menu. We were told that prices on the dinner menu had decreased as well. The lunch order—chicken alla panna with garlic pink sauce over rigatoni pasta—was $9.95 and the portions were large enough to have leftovers. The bread we received was now warm and freshly baked—a far cry from the room-temperature loaf we received the first time. The dipping sauce was a nice blend of olive oil and herbs. A hint of vinegar, but not overpowering, as others have said.
The biggest and best change was the wait time, which was almost non-existent. Drink orders were taken and fulfilled immediately, and after serving bread and a cup of soup, we received our lunch within just moments of ordering it. The dining room was nearly empty at the time, but as more diners began to arrive, we watched and took note—each customer had the same experience. Plates of pasta, chicken alfredo, seafood…all of it was leaving the kitchen in a speedy manner.
The quality of the food is indicative of the nearly two decades that Gino has spent in the kitchen, first in Odessa, and now in Sapulpa. Everything was hot, tasted great, and was cooked thoroughly. But there’s another characteristic Gino may become known for, other than great Italian food: generosity.
“From the moment I pull into the parking lot, I’m ready to serve my customers,” Gino said, recalling a time when he was about to leave for the night and a couple of customers showed up. “They said, ‘oh, you are closed, we don’t want to be a bother;’ I tell them, ‘no, nobody leaves hungry.’ I gave them bread and soup. It’s the least I can do. I remember what it was like, being here, on Father’s Day weekend and being hungry—I want nobody that comes in here to feel that way. Nobody leaves hungry.”
Roma Italian Ristorante is open Tuesday through Friday, 11 am to 9 pm, on Saturday from 11 am to 10 pm, and on Sunday from 11 am to 8:30 pm. They are closed on Mondays.