American made, for better or worse

Roman Lily Cafe and Raleigh's BBQ

It's been years since I visited Roman Lily Cafe (668 Highland Ave., 404-653-1155) to review it. The owner, Calavino Donati, is one of those people of such sweet disposition that making even a mild criticism of her food feels like plunging a dagger into the heart of Mary Poppins.

I know. Critics aren't supposed to let such feelings interfere with their work but, damn it, I get tired of dodging spit. Truth is that quality over the years has been up and down at Roman Lily but if my visit last week is a fair indication, the kitchen is humming these days.

Calavino, of Italian heritage, named her restaurant as homage to her beloved Tuscan grandmother. The menu has never been very Italian. It's mainly American comfort food with a few kinky features. But the stress on straightforward cooking combined with Calavino's very Italian need to make customers eat and eat does remind me of some hand-rubbing restaurateurs who have hovered over my table in Italy.

The restaurant, all brick and funky art, is looking great these days. A major construction project is occurring across the street and it's easy to guess that the restaurant, rather boho, will find itself in a year or so feeding an army of gentrifiers.

Wayne and I sampled a good bit of food last week, owing to Calavino's habit of insisting that I try "just a taste of this." Everything was solid — even toasted pumpkin seeds she shared as a nibble at the meal's start. Our server told us that her own jack-o-lantern had taken a suicidal leap earlier that day. We wondered if we were eating its remains.

We started with Asian shrimp salad ($9). It featured six tiger shrimp grilled and served over romaine lettuce with hearts of palm and water chestnuts. The dressing, a ginger-soy concoction, tasted a bit too much like the predictable one you encounter at every Japanese restaurant, but I'd happily order it again.

Spinach pie ($10) was remarkably good, freshly made. Calavino fills layers of light phyllo with fresh spinach and roasted red peppers and lots of feta cheese. We had a slice as an appetizer and you may want to consider the same.

For my entree, I chose a special — two grilled pork chops over garlic-mashed potatoes. The plate was drenched with a Cajun gravy with slices of andouille sausage. I ate every bite and did not have a heart attack on the way back to the car.

Wayne chose three-cheese tortellini ($11) topped with a pesto sauce featuring sundried tomatoes as well as basil. I liked it mainly, though a heavy grating of parmesan rendered the dish a bit sticky for my taste. We also sampled grilled lamb tenderloin served over garlic-mashed potatoes ($16). I thought it was the best dish we tasted. The lamb was lightly marinated and grilled just beyond rare.

We were too stuffed for dessert, of course. The famous banana bread with caramelized bananas would have sent me over the edge. However, I confess I did find myself scratching at the door of next-door neighbor Jake's on the way to the car. Thank God it was closed. A week earlier, I stopped by there and bought a container of ginger ice cream — my fave after the honey fig — and ate it with the speed of a runner hydrating himself.

By the time you read this, incidentally, Roman Lily will have debuted a new menu. Among the featured dishes on the new menu are: grilled pork chops over mashed sweet potatoes with a white-truffle honey Dijon sauce; grilled halibut over fresh spinach with dill-havarti mac-and-cheese; chicken and biscuits with roasted shallots and baby carrots; and sundried tomato ravioli filled with smoked chicken in a tomato-basil cream sauce. New sample plates of side dishes — mainly vegetables — will also be available. Roman Lily is also open for brunch on Sundays.

br>?In Decatur

I dined recently at Raleigh's BBQ and Blues (123 E. Court Square, Decatur, 404-378-3101). The restaurant has been open two months and that's plenty of time to iron out the usual kinks of a new venture. But Raleigh's, nearly empty when I visited, is limping pathetically.
Occupying the old Santa Fe Cafe location, the restaurant's interior is way weird. A broad corridor with railings divides two long table areas and butts into a performance space for bands. I have no idea what the corridor is for. For dancing in the aisle? Behind the band area there's an almost glamorous bar — a cherry wood-like curved structure at which some Decatur girls on a night out were getting tipsy during my visit. The decor is brick with some nice black-and-white performance pics. There's a bit of graffiti on the walls, looking very self-conscious.

The menu is strange. There's the utterly bizarre tale, "The Birth of Okefenokke BBQ and Blues," on the paper menu's back. Written half in dialect with names like "Cooter Dinkins," it features a half-breed who runs away to an Indian reservation and a pig kidnapped in the trunk of a car before being butchered.

The food is almost unrelentingly unpleasant. Maybe that's why it takes so damn long for it to get to the table. Ours didn't show up until I barked angrily at our server. A couple behind us grew similarly irate and finally exploded themselves. A server had the nerve to tell them to be patient.

We tried the "World Famous Hicks Hot Tamales," a delicacy with which Mr. Eugene Hicks of Clarksdale, Miss., has been delighting the palates of presidents and celebrities since 1971, according to the menu. They're not the worst thing on the menu, especially at $2 each, but they are no more interesting than the average frozen tamale with a novelty filling, in this case a picadillo-like barbecue.

Sweet tomato pie ($3.25) is an oily combination of a few tomatoes, onions, some basil and a lot of the "best cheese." Weirdly, it tastes like it's got mayo in it.

You can order sandwiches, ribs or chicken separately. We tried the "Hoochie Coochie Pork Combo" ($9.50), a starter platter to get some broad tastes. It features one of the tamales and some obnoxiously sweet Brunswick stew that tastes more like a vegetable soup made with meat. Two ribs, which I hear are St. Louis-style, were dry but amazingly greasy for as long as they'd been cooked. There was no discernible flavor of the hickory with which they are supposedly cooked. Finally, there was a potato salad with bacon that was inedible it was so glutinously dressed. The crackling cornbread the menu promised never arrived.

We picked at the food. Mr. Nice, Wayne, kept saying, "I'm just not real hungry. I ate lunch late today." Yeah right. I'd eaten at noon and my appetite seemed to have suddenly disappeared too.

More? The pulled pork sandwich ($5) was served on a chilly bun. The pork, as dry as the ribs, wasn't too bad, but I disliked the sweet red sauce on the table — the only one available, according to our server. I also ordered a quarter "REAL barbequed chicken" ($3.75). I laughed when I saw it. The poor bird's skin had been rubbed off somehow and a piece of it clung to the plate like a messy skin graft had just taken place. The taste, smoked and then hickory-grilled, was flat.

The coleslaw, which is free, tastes pretty good.

The verdict? I think our server suggested it as she scooped up our half-eaten plates of food. "Did you eat anything you liked?" she asked.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.??

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