Photo by Richard Lin
Photo by Richard Lin

3.5 / 5 Stars

Romano’s is an easy-to-miss building in the middle of the Canyon Crest Towne Center with the least eye-catching wooden signs I’ve ever seen. When I looked at said signs, I was a little confused because there seemed to be two entirely different restaurants in one building, yet both were called Romano’s. There was Romano’s Chicago Pizzeria as well as Romano’s Italian Restaurant. And sure enough, upon walking in, the waitresses at the front room give you an ultimatum right off the bat: Do you take the door on the right that leads to a land of candlelit cloth tables and free bread, or the hall on the left that leads to pizza and beer? While the official “Italian Restaurant” looked a bit more schwanky, I was set on trying Romano’s Chicago-style stuffed pizza — a deep-dish delicacy where the dough is jam-packed with cheese and toppings and sauce covers the dough on top. I can only hope the official “restaurant” wasn’t superior in every way.

The first thing that struck me about the Chicago Pizzeria was the pleasant atmosphere. Vintage sports photos hung from the entirety of the aforementioned hall, and there were even three classic arcade machines. The beaten, yet sturdy plastic and old-school knob controls proved them to be still-functioning relics from the 80s. Definitely a nice touch if you’re into that sort of thing.

The dining area itself is split between two areas: around the bar and around the stage. Around the bar were black raised tables, as well as the opposing wall featuring the type of huge black cushions you might find at a night club’s VIP lounge. The bar itself boasted a significant collection of liquors and beers on tap as well as a huge cabinet for the extensive library of wine. While the stage was blocked off by a giant red velvet curtain when I went, the lighting of the entire dining area was dim, as if they were hosting one of their frequent live performances.

Though I already knew what I was going to get, I gave the menu a good look-over to see just what else the Pizzeria offered. There’s also thinner crust (or as the menu hilariously labelled it, “Sissy”) pizza as well as other Italian offerings like calzones and various pastas. In addition, there’s also a selection of sandwiches, burgers and hot dogs. Most of it was in the range of $5 to $8, with the pastas being the exceptions as $10 to $12.

But my eyes went straight to the stuffed pizza selection, and I chose the “My Favorite” pizza — which was stuffed with sausage, mushrooms and bell peppers — to see if Romano’s really did know my personal tastes. To my dismay, right above the list of pizzas was a little warning that due to the thick crust, it would take 30 to 40 minutes to bake and following the warning was the cheeky little parenthetical “It’s worth the wait!”

Already with an empty stomach, the thought of waiting up to 40 minutes plunged me into the appetizer selection, which included standard entries like French fries and onion rings but also more unique and Italian options like insalata caprese. I picked something I’ve never had before, the bolo bread, and thankfully, it came out in a flash. It was a plate covered with six huge hunks of bread fresh out of the oven, each piece hollowed out and filled with meat sauce and then covered with mozzarella.

I dug in like a ravenous beast, and found the flavor to be simple, yet satisfying. The bread itself was arguably the best part, as it was warm, flaky and buttery, with an outer crunch and inner fluff that proved that it was hand-made and pulled straight out of the oven right after I ordered it. The cheese, by contrast, was the most disappointing element as it was just a thin and chewy layer of mediocrity, nigh undetectable in terms of flavor. And somewhere in between was the meat sauce filling, because while it was savory and rich, it dawned on me in my second piece that it tasted exactly like the kind of meat sauce I can make at home. Such a quality is a compliment in that I know quality ingredients were used — but also a condemnation in that one of the main reasons I go out to eat in the first place is to experience an elevation of flavors that I can’t create in my own kitchen. Still, at the end of the day, the bolo bread did what any appetizer is supposed to: keep hunger at bay and pump me up for the main course.

And when the pizza finally came out, boy, did it look marvelous. Six pieces of a 12-inch diameter pie slathered in tomato sauce and parmesan sprinkles, with an outer crust that was as tall as and even wider than my thumb. I scooped up one of the pieces, and to my delight, the insides oozed and burst out, as this thing was packed to the brim. Upon the first bite, it was instantly apparent that the sauce and cheese were better than the bolo bread’s by miles. The absence of ground beef in the sauce allowed for the strong and zesty basil to really pop and dance along my palate. And while the cheese in the appetizer was plain, to say the least, here it was the shining star. Biting into a really cheesy bit was to indulge in ecstasy by the way of gluttonous globs of gooey goodness. It was so good, I honestly regretted not picking “My Sister’s Favorite,” which is just filled with three types of cheese.

Another reason for such regret was that it turned out to be the toppings (or stuffings, in this case, I guess) that detracted from the experience. The sausage bits were savory and salty, but far from special, and overpowered the basil and cheese. The mushrooms stood out as being the one thing I ate at Romano’s to taste like it just came out of a can. And then the worst offenders were the bell peppers, which were obviously just cut raw and jammed in there, and it took just the tiniest bit to leave all your taste buds detecting nothing but bell pepper.

Overall, I thought the food was good, but not exceptionally great. It’s not as good as getting a real stuffed pizza in Chicago, but it doesn’t outright fail either. I was a little shocked to see the final check to be $26.95 for one medium pizza and appetizer, but the meal was for two people who got so stuffed, that they both walked out with enough leftovers for practically two more meals. So at the very least, you get what you pay for in quantity, if not entirely in quality. I can’t say that Romano’s is one of my favorite restaurants in Riverside, but with its chill interior and cheesy delights, I can definitely see myself going back.