In a small strip mall near the hotel I like to stay at when I'm in Chicago are three restaurants that are side-by-side-by-side. I've eaten at two of them - Maharaja, one of my favorite Indian restaurants (click here to see my entry on Maharaja); and a pretty good little Mexican restaurant by the name of Laredo's Embassy of Mexican Food (click here to see my entry on Laredo's). The third restaurant - Romano's Restaurant - is a family owned Italian/pizza joint that has been around for 65 years, but not at this location. I thought I'd give this place a try one evening earlier this year.
Charles and Sophie Romano opened the original Romano's - known as Charles Romano's to the locals - in 1950 in a building on E. Oakton St. in Des Plaines. It was said the pizza joint was the hang out of Hillary Rodham (now Hillary Clinton) and Harrison Ford when they were both going to high school in nearby Park Ridge. Burt Reynolds and Dinah Shore visited Romano's in the 1970's when that couple were an item. It wasn't just the thin-crust pizza is what brought people back for generations, it was the neighborhood feel to the place that time hadn't touched since the 1950's.
Charles and Sophie's three sons - Joe, Paul and Chuck - all worked in the business growing up, but Chuck was the one who took over the family business when Charles died in 1989. Chuck Romano owned the business until around 2008 when he sold it to longtime employee Tom Sitarski. In 2010, the IRS had a lien filed on the business and Romano's was forced to close to get their finances in order. After selling the building and most of the contents to help pay against the lien, Sitarski quietly re-opened Romano's in a strip mall along W. Higgins Road in Rosemont in 2012. (See map)
If they were trying to replicate the original Charles Romano's location in the new Romano's in the strip mall, well, they had to fall short. No matter how timeless and well-worn the old place may have been, they couldn't replicate that interior in the Romano's on W. Higgins. It was dark - all the pictures I took of the interior didn't come out - but had sort of a homey feeling to the place.
I took a seat in a booth along the wall and was given a menu by a waitress who came over to greet me. I ordered up a beer and took a look through the menu. I've read where some regulars of the old Charles Romano's didn't even know there was a menu with other food items on it. All they did was order pizza each time they came in. But Romano's features a number of pasta dishes, sandwiches, Italian appetizers, and a number of salads on the menu. They also have chicken dishes such as chicken parmesan and chicken marsala, as well as ribs and fried shrimp on the menu.
The pizzas at Romano's are all thin crust and come in five sizes from a 10" individual pizza up to a 20" pizza for groups of 4 or more. I pulled a rookie mistake and ordered a small pizza thinking that it was a 10", but it came out as a 12" pizza. I didn't order the "individual" pizza which was the 10" size. That was all right. What I didn't eat I could take back to the hotel.
The pizza was sort of misshapen and looked handmade. Generous amounts of mozzarella, sliced fresh mushrooms, large slices of pepperoni and and chunks of Italian sausage topped the crispy thin crust. From the first bite, I could tell Romano's pizza was a little different from other thin crust pizzas I've had in the past.
The sauce was sweet and tangy, but cheese seemed to be a little more creamy than what I was used to. It says that they use mozzarella on their menu, but I thought that the cheese on the Romano's pizza seemed to be more of a blend. Sort of like it had provolone or even St. Louis-style provel cheese mixed in. At first I didn't think I cared for it all that much, but I found that it wasn't offensive in the taste.
The crust also had sort of a strange texture. I can't quite put my finger on what it was, but the crust was crispy, yet pliable at the same time. It had a slight burnt taste from the oven, but overall the crust was fine. I prefer a good thin crust versus a thicker hand-tossed crust.
After thinking about the pizza after the fact, I determined that I liked it enough that I could always go back if I were staying around O'Hare and needed a quick thin crust pizza fix. The pizza at Romano's was unique and I can see why some people still send frozen Romano pizza's to friends and family around the nation. I really wish I would have been able to go to the original Romano's in Des Plaines, from all that I read about the place and from the pictures I've seen the place had character. It's tough to make a strip mall space have character. But you'll find Romano's in Rosemont to be inviting enough with the same style of pizza they've been serving for 65 years.