Porta Romana

420 King St. Spruce Grove

portaromana.ca

780-293-8719

Weekdays, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Sat. and Sun., 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Closed Mondays

Food: 3 of 5 Suns

Ambience: 3.5 of 5 Suns

Service: 2.5 of 5 Suns

Dinner for two (just food): basic, $35; loaded, $70

A big deal has been made of Porta Romana as the first “authentic” Italian restaurant in Spruce Grove – indeed that city’s first serious dining experience outside big-box chain restaurants.

This is not unexpected. Spruce Grove, next-door Stony Plain and surrounding Parkland boast 80,000 residents. Tastes are moving beyond pizzas and burgers.

Porta Romana is family-friendly, a little adventurous, but mostly staying within standard pasta dishes made from scratch.

The fact is Porta Romana is like dozens of other Italian restaurants in Edmonton, making standard pastas and sauces like Mama’s. It’s just in Spruce Grove.

The room is pleasant, a transformation from the former Peter’s Pizza. One enters a rustic dining room with plenty of wood, art on the side walls, a gas fire flickering in a stone hearth.

The owner-operators are professionals. The story is a freshly educated Spruce Grove lass headed out into the world, married an Italian chef, then, years later, they return to her home town to open a restaurant and raise a family.

The ambience, menu and marketing all show hospitality savvy.

What I couldn’t find was a kitchen signature. The food was all pretty good – hearty, very big portions, decent ingredients – but nothing special enough to make me want to return.

And the service … it is still at the Peter’s Pizza level.

Our party started by sharing the daily mussel soup – your basic mussels – and Verdure Grigliate, an appetizer described as grilled Mediterranean vegetables with goat cheese and almonds topped with a caramelized sheen.

The Verdure Grigliate was the most interesting dish of the night. Most veggie appetizers don’t come with a warm, crystalized sweet topping reminiscent of a crème brulee crust.

The mussel soup was not bad, not great. Not the best of mussels, not the worst, with your basic white wine sauce. Meanwhile, the server had to be reminded that spoons are needed to sup mussel soup, as is an empty bowl for the discarded shells.

Porta Romana emphasizes its own pasta, having a section for “durum wheat” pasta dishes and another for slightly more expensive “handmade pasta.”

Two of our party went for “durum wheat” selections – smoked salmon and “Al Frutti di Mare” mixed seafood – but with the homemade pasta.

My wife tried the intriguing Mezzaluna (half-moon) pasta pockets filled with ricotta cheese and spinach in a walnut-based sauce. I liked the Tagliolini, described as a “delicate” pasta with scallops and asparagus.

Not bad, not great. The homemade pasta was not memorable. The Tagliolini angel-hair pasta was oily and dense, the scallops okay. The Al Frutti di Mare was generous with the seafood, but did the dish sing with freshness and sensational taste? No.

The Mezzaluna’s pureed walnut sauce was different and tasty. The dish was visually dull, the pasta half-pockets buried in a bowl of beige-coloured sauce. Good, but not great.

Meanwhile, the server, sweet little ol’lady that she was, had to be re-reminded that pasta is meant to be eaten with cutlery, not with one’s hands.

For dessert, we split that which defines any Italian restaurant, the tiramisu. This tiramisu was family-friendly, home-made, cake-style, easy to eat. Guess what? Not bad, not great.

So if you’re in the Spruce Grove area, need a reasonable restaurant to take a family or clients, Porta Romana fills the bill. But is it worth a special visit from the city? Nope.

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Reminder: The Christmas Gathering of the Art of Conversation is our 100th, Thursday December 18, from 4:30 to 7 p.m. at the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald. The Mac, in turn, will celebrate its 100th birthday in 2015.

All who yearn for decent conversation are most welcome – cash bar, complimentary appetizers. To support local charity, bring a donation for the Food Bank or the Sun’s Adopt-A-Teen Christmas gift program for under-privileged teens. All donors will be entered into a draw for two to attend the Mac’s grand Sunday Brunch on its 100th birthday, July 5, 2015.