FOR LONGTIME chef and restaurateur Lucio Romani, a love affair with all things American began almost the moment he stepped off the plane. Schooling his customers on the true, authentic cuisine of his native Italy, however, took a little longer. Growing up in the seaside town of Ladispoli, about 20 miles west of Rome, Romani enjoyed classic Roman dishes such as pasta carbonara and Amatriciana, as well as fresh seafood from the Mediterranean coast. In the States, Italian food meant chicken alfredo and spaghetti with meatballs. “At the first Italian place where I worked,” Romani says, “they still threw pasta against the wall to see if it was done.”
But Romani is no purist, and he started his career in food with an Italian dairy company that produced both high-end cheese and yogurt, as well as less expensive grocery store brands. His introduction to America came in 1995 when his older sister, a doctor, came to do research on diabetes at Methodist Hospital, and Romani paid a visit. He never returned, and soon he began a series of kitchen jobs that ranged from Broad Ripple’s Tuscany and the legendary Bacco on West 86th Street to Zionsville’s Il Villagio and eventually a stint at Seasons 52, which sent him to train in Boca Raton and Orlando, industry knowledge instrumental in opening his own place, Ristorante Roma, which he and his girlfriend Christine Jourdan, a pastry specialist, operated until a few months before the pandemic. Seeing a lack of quality gelato in the area, Romani and Jourdan then opened Mammamia Gelato, featuring frozen treats and indoor seating.
The pandemic changed the couple’s business plan, however, with Romani adding takeout pizzas, pastas, and sandwiches, and Jourdan perfecting the recipes for rich Italian cookies, pastries, and cakes. And while Romani makes plenty of concessions to American tastes, like putting chicken with pasta, something Italians rarely do, he still goes to lengths to keep things as true to those he grew up eating. His slightly thicker Roman-style pizza is the same style he grew up eating at a pizzeria in Ladispoli. “I even found the woman who owned the place and called her to ask for tips,” he says. “She said she couldn’t take the recipe to her grave, so she read it to me over the phone.” It’s an all-day affair that requires hard-wheat flour from Manitoba, but it’s the kind of painstaking dish he enjoys giving back to the adopted country he loves.