633 9th Street, Imperial Beach
I swear, I’m in Moonstruck. It’s like the breakfast scene in Olympia Dukakis’s house, where they’re waiting for Johnny Cammareri to turn up from Sicily.
Except in the movie, it’s dead silent. Here, everybody’s talking.
When I come in, the three sisters, Marguerita (Margie), Maria (Mary), and Francesca, are sitting around a table, gabbing like there’s no tomorrow. They’re women of a certain age, glamorous.
I only find out their names later, but you can see this is family.
Two lady customers from a different table get up to go. They stop and hug the sisters.
“Get the eggplant,” one of the customers says when she sees me looking. “It’s the special today. Sensational.”
Francesca, the only one of the sisters dressed in sky blue — the other two are in black — glances back over her shoulder during the hug. “Sit anywhere,” she says.
I take a table near the front window. Margie brings me a menu.
I heard about this place at the Scoreboard, the bar-eatery on Palm Avenue, here in Imperial Beach. Couple of lifelong IBethans said there was a li’l restaurant called Cafe Di Roma that had really struck a chord with locals. What’s more, they actually managed to make Italian food healthy.
“It’s a jewel,” they said. “If you can find it.”
So true. You could grow a beard searching for this bistro, if you didn’t know where to look. It’s behind the Union Bank, on the part of 9th Street where it starts to run out of steam, in a strip mall that’s painted in different shades of green — light green at street level, dark green along the flat roof… Ah! Here it is, by Ed’s Shoe Repair.
So, yeah, the idea of healthy Italian food — is that even possible? Everything served with pasta, meals ending with cannoli stuffed with cream?
It’s certainly nice in here. Painted a fresh green, cream, and white. There are lots of paintings and dried flowers on the walls, red roses in vases on the tables. Connie Francis sings on the sound system, “Ma-mma!”
They have maybe a dozen tables topped with light-colored marble slabs. Mostly for two. You wouldn’t fit more than a couple dozen customers in here at one time.
They have the usual spaghetti and cannelloni, but it’s academic, because I love eggplant. You don’t have to twist my arm.
It ain’t totally cheap. Goes for $9.95. For a dollar less, they have manicotti — savory stuffed crêpes — and some simple spaghettis for around six bucks. But when it comes to eggplant, no contest. I’ll pay.
They have wine, beers by the bottle for around $6, $7. Damn.
“I’ll have water,” I say.
“Leave room for our cannoli,” says Francesca. “People can’t refuse them.”
Robert comes up. Turns out he and his wife Mary (one of the sisters) launched Cafe Di Roma about a year ago.
“Would you like soup or salad, for $1.50 more?” he asks.
Sure, sounds like a deal. The soup’s minestrone, today and every day. I go for that. Mary brings the soup with a delicious square of oven-hot focaccia, toasted red on the top.
“We make this focaccia,” Francesca says. “Flour, yeast, salt, oil, and warm water, and we drip juice from a ripe tomato on top. That’s it. We’re all chefs. We make everything. And we’re really trying to cook healthy, and lean and organic. We make our own sausages out of turkey, because it’s leaner. Our meatballs, too. They’re 91-percent lean. We use bulgur wheat for breadcrumbs, because they have less oil. And flax seed…”
Meantime, I’m slurping the minestrone. It’s good, lots of stuff in it — pasta, veggies — and I’m dipping that focaccia. Crunchy top, tender in the center.
“Our dad was Marco Palumbo,” Francesca says. “He and our mom, Mamma Rosa, started Marco’s in Coronado, in that bank building with the tall columns. They kept it going 50 years, till 1999. We grew up in there. Five sisters. Kitchen slaves! We’ve all been rolling meatballs since we were age nine. But it was good, too, because we were close to the Hotel Del, so we’d get so many celebrities coming from there. Some became regulars. Chuck Norris, Dick Van Dyke — he always had pizza — Penny Marshall, Rob Reiner, Pearl Bailey, Charlton Heston…”
The talk stops as the sizzling comes within earshot. Robert brings me the eggplant dish, and, ooh... It looks good. Smells good, too. Tastes savory, as only eggplant can. Three big slices, with a blanket of tomato-based sauce over the top, plus three melted cheese squares over that, all sizzling in an oval-shaped metal pan set on a china plate. It comes with another dish of penne pasta with tomato sauce.
“So you’re sure about the less fat and calories?” I ask Francesca. Because, come on, this is too good to be all good.
“Absolutely,” she says. “You know, when my mom and dad grew up in Italy, things were hard. Mom had to steal the fat cut-offs from the meat trucks, just to salvage some actual meat among the fat. They made their own wine and cheeses and bread when they could. Had to. My dad went to sea at 13 to escape the draft for Mussolini’s army. He jumped ship in New York with his belongings in a pillowcase on his back. We know about lean eating. And now we see the value of it all over again.”
’Course, this calorie talk doesn’t stop me from falling victim to a passing cannoli ($3.75). But the crunchy crust and creamy stuffing and strawberry flavoring and whipped cream are good. So’s the $1.50 pomegranate tea.
Francesca runs her own Rent-a-Chef business (“Heart-healthy cooking!”), but she still helps out a lot here. I love the idea of the sisters, still together, rolling those meatballs, just like they did as kids for those other customers, Chuck, Dick, Penny, Rob, Pearl, Charlton… ■
The Place: Cafe Di Roma, 633 9th Street, Imperial Beach, 619-429-1100
Prices: Manicotti, $8.95; eggplant, sauce, cheese, penne pasta $9.95; minestrone soup, $1.50; side salad, $1.50; cannoli dessert, $3.75
Hours: 11:00 a.m.–7:00 p.m., Tuesday–Thursday; till 8:00 p.m., Friday; 5:00 p.m.–8:00 p.m., Saturday; closed Sunday–Monday
Buses: 901, 933, 934
Nearest bus stop: 9th and Palm