When in Rome remains one of the wonders of the North County coastal restaurant row.
The place opened in the mid-1980s during a period that was less than propitious for the restaurant business, but, rather than dying young like the majority of new establishments at the time, When in Rome actually did so well that it expanded its premises to more than double the original seating capacity.
There are anomalies to When in Rome, and they seem, if anything, to have aided its popularity. The restaurant is not more than two stones' throws from the water in the Leucadia section of Encinitas, but it has no view; this lack of blue water vistas seems to matter not a whit to the clientele. And the service takes a fairly formal approach, even though the mood of the crowd is definitely North County casual.
The menu remains the key to the place. It differs from others in that it makes a cosmopolitan, comprehensive survey of the regional cuisines spaced along the Italian boot as regularly as eyelets on a high-button shoe. The pastas are priced in both appetizer and entree portions, which allows guests to strike Italian or American poses in whichever mood suits them.
The starter list maintains a fairly low profile with such typical offerings as an antipasto plate, prosciutto with melon and the tomato, basil and buffalo mozzarella combination called caprese . A little less usual, and quite enjoyable, are the funghi trifolati , or mushrooms sauteed in a savory fashion, and the marinated eggplant and zucchini, a refreshing combo that can easily double as a salad. (Entrees do, however, include a simple but nicely composed green salad that is moistened, in the true Italian style, with minimal amounts of vinegar and olive oil.)
The menu divides the pastas into three categories to specify the differences between the stuffed and baked varieties, the more delicate egg noodle dishes and the brawnier preparations based on semolina dough. The lasagna, as is common in Italy but uncommon here, includes not only meat sauce and cheeses in its filling but the velvety white sauce called becciamella , which smoothes everything it comes in contact with.
The sauce over the spinach-and-cheese ravioli with cream invites one to scrape the plate. There is just enough fresh sage to add a teasing, musky note, while grated cheese stirred directly into the reduced cream adds a grainy texture and a slightly nutty flavor. Reduced cream also binds the penne alla Norcina, an excellent preparation of macaroni tossed with cheese and chunks of fennel-flavored sausage.
The entree list avoids cliches in favor of Italian versions of French dishes; examples would be the salmon with Cognac and the filetto di bue al pepe , or filet mignon coated with green peppercorns.
Veal and chicken predominate, however, and the more interesting choices include the veal chop alla Zingara ("Gypsy style"), in which the meat is basted as it grills with a mixture of lemon, olive oil and garlic, and the petti di pollo alla Milanese, a breaded chicken breast finished with mushrooms and a hearty tomato sauce.
The kitchen also serves a notably sharp plate of veal scallops alla pizzaiola , with crisped garlic added to the sauce of tomato and fresh basil for extra pungency.
The dessert tray generally fails to inspire, with the notable exception of tiramisu . When in Rome was the first restaurant in the county to serve this frothy, Roman pudding, and it still whips up an excellent blend of fluffy mascarpone cheese and custard flavored with chocolate and coffee.
WHEN IN ROME
828 N. Highway 101, Encinitas
Hours: Lunch served Tuesday through Friday, dinner Tuesday through Sunday; closed Mondays.
Cost: Entrees from $9.95 to $17.95. Dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $40 to $80. Credit cards accepted.