Roma Antica – Freehold

This new Italian restaurant in Freehold will succeed with its authentic food at bargain-basement prices.

By: Pat Tanne

Roma Antica

Ristorante Italiano

7-9 South St.


(732) 780-5164
Food: Good to very good

Service: Casual

Cuisine: Italian with an emphasis on Roman

Ambiance: Large pizza parlor

Prices: Mostly inexpensive

Hours: Dinner: Tues.-Sun. 5:30-10 p.m.

Essentials: Major credit cards accepted; no liquor license (b.y.o.); smoking in back room; wheelchair
accessible; reservations accepted.


   WHEN I headed down to Freehold for dinner recently, I expected to review Percalla Mediterranean Grill, about which I had heard many good things. For good or ill, that restaurant has closed and been summarily replaced with what looks at first glance to be just another red-sauce Italian place. But something compelled me to stay, and I am glad I did.
   At first blush, Roma Antica gives the appearance of being a pizza parlor with aspirations. Appointments include turquoise vinyl booths, suspended above which are those brass-trimmed lamps with panels of colored glass that hark back to the ’70s, and half-walls of varnished oak with brass railings. Upon further inspection, there are more promising clues to Roma Antica’s real identity: tables are draped with white linen cloths and napkins and are pre-set with wineglasses, albeit smallish, even though it is a b.y.o. restaurant.
   What really kept me from bolting, though, was the menu. Sure, many of the usual suspects are represented: fried calamari, antipasto, Caprese and Caesar salads, eggplant parm, penne alla vodka. But there were tantalizing differences: poached zucchini, potato croquettes stuffed with mozzarella, and pasta with bottarga (dried mullet roe, imported from Italy), although that pasta has since been replaced on the spring menu.
   A team of young servers looks like they could be serving pizza, and perhaps because the restaurant is more or less only a month old and still trying to attract a clientele, they tend to lavish on a little too much service.


Staff photo by Frank Wojciechowski
Roma Antica gives the appearance of being a pizza parlor with aspirations: tables are draped with white linen cloths and napkins, and are pre-set with wineglasses.

   I do think that Roma Antica will find its clientele, primarily because of the authenticity of its dishes and their bargain-basement prices. A generous, rich serving of tagliatelle with dried wild porcini mushrooms imported from Tuscany and Umbria is one of the pricier entrées at only $16.50. Here, as in other dishes, the pasta is cooked to the perfect degree of al dente, and the already pronounced flavor of the mushrooms is magnified by butter used with abandon.
   An even better buy is Penne alla Roma Antica at $10, a simple pasta dish of fresh tomato, feta cheese and basil. Cherry tomatoes are warmed just enough to bring out their sweetness without making them mushy or disintegrated, and they are counterpointed by just the right amount of feta and basil.
   Roma Antica is the first restaurant, and a life’s dream, for owner/chef Andrea Branco, a native of Rome. The 35-year-old trained and worked in his home city and in London before moving to the United States seven years ago. He is committed to using fresh, seasonal ingredients, but doesn’t hesitate to import when he can’t find what he considers quality ingredients. That is why he is currently baking his own bread, a light and airy version that is studded with whatever ingredient moves him that day, such as black olives or sun-dried tomatoes. As anyone who has traveled to Italy might attest, it is authentic — meaning drier and fluffier than what we have come to expect here.


Staff photo by Frank Wojciechowski

   Likewise, the olive oil used in the saucer of seasoned oil that comes to the table at the start of the meal is unusually earthy and flavorful, which I personally liked but others may not. A garlicky hummus is another of Branco’s opening gifts.
   I opened my meal with a big bowl of poached New Zealand cockles in an excellent garlicky broth ($7), which actually put the dry bread to good use. These have been replaced on the spring menu with poached mussels ($6), which I bet are as almost as good. (Those who love small clams such as cockles can try the baby clams in a dish of spaghetti vongole veraci, $15).
   Antipasto here is called Italian Festa ($8.50), a big platter laden with stuffed grape leaves, ricotta salata, Parmigiano, soppressata, prosciutto di San Daniele, olives, slivers of sun-dried tomatoes and cherry tomatoes on the vine — enough for at least two people. The grape leaves, alas, have a gummy filling, and some of the meats seem to lack intensity.
   Perhaps the dish that shows off Chef Branco’s talents best is a chicken entrée he poetically calls Petto di Pollo Marco Antonio ($11), "named after Marco Antonio, all he needed for Cleopatra to fall in love with him." Thin, tender slices of chicken breast are lightly breaded and pan seared, then sautéed in a flavorful, nicely balanced lemon-cream sauce accented with shallots and capers. Notably, the breading retains its crispness. Nuggets of roasted potatoes are an excellent accompaniment, although potato croquettes offer a tempting alternative.
   Perhaps it was my pizza-parlor prejudice, or more likely that all of us in my party had overindulged in the rich excesses of the entrées, but we just couldn’t find room for any of the three desserts Roma Antica serves. But when I sneaked a peek at the tiramisu ($6) on the way out, I regretted that choice. An authentic version, served in a gratin dish, it looked terrific. Other choices are fresh strawberries with whipped cream ($6) and Sicilian-style cannoli with orange blossom candy in addition to citron zest and chocolate chips ($5).
   TimeOFF customarily allows three months to lapse before reviewing a new restaurant. Due to unforeseen circumstances, Roma Antica didn’t get its full time allotment to settle in, but with its authentic renditions of both Italian standards and a few more unusual options, it didn’t really need it.
Pat Tanner’s reviews can be heard on Dining Today, Sat. 9-10 a.m. on MoneyTalk 1350 AM and 1040 AM.
For directions to Roma Antica, click here.