Heroic Helping

Regular menu favorites at Rombi’s include rollantini caprese with prociutto and pesto ($10.95), portobello ravioli ($20.95) and eggplant Parmigiana ($21.95).

I don’t set out in search of heroes when I eat dinner – usually it’s the catch of the day I’m after. But in a giving industry like the restaurant world, they often appear along the way. Back to that in a second.

For a long time, my favorite Italian restaurant in Monterey County was Rombi’s La Mia Cucina in Pacific Grove (373-2416). The entrees were (and remain) spendy, sure, but they include so much – tidy and tasty bruschetta, homemade soups and house salad – and the Old World-style extended beyond the three course approach with the outsize vintage spirits posters, the seasoned service attention from lifelong industry pros and owner-operator Joe Rombi checking on every table pretty much every single night. Besides, the Italian-sausage arancini, sand dabs and veal saltimbocca were all-world.

Another reason it was my favorite: It was originally recommended by the first Italian I ever met.

Paula Crivello of P.G. shared a classroom with my mother back when there was such a thing as “open primary” with first and second graders in one place. They would go on to teach on the same faculty for three decades.

She’s a hero for tolerating the changing of my diapers on her co-teacher’s desk (speaking of way back when) and for being there for my mama and me before I knew what an aunt was. And for birthday cards that always find me, even across the occasional continent, and rare but timely advice that steered my sister and me through turbulent times. But she’s most saintly for providing my first introductions to the Italian culture I would later find myself surrounded by.

The culture has its key lessons, like: Eating is community. We don’t get to do it enough (and it’s long overdue), but when we do – at least in her kitchen – it’s an impressive endeavor, with no shortage of handmade family recipes.

Or: Anybody could be a cousin. She’s related to half of my best Italian buddies at least distantly, and her giant family has even adopted our diminutive one for holidays so we wouldn’t feel lonely – nor hungry for several days thereafter.

And: Don’t refuse food from a host. OK… maybe that one didn’t come from her, but it might’ve, and it feels Italian, and it’s led to so many meaningful interactions that I have enough thanks to go around.

Come to think of it, those lessons double as axioms of enlightenment: Stay in touch. We’re all connected. Eat together. Give – and accept – invites.

When she told me long ago Rombi’s was her definitive place for real Italian, that made it mine. When I heard Rombi sold his baby recently, I was a little apprehensive, and curious to see how it is going, so I returned last week. Which unearthed another hero.

To reiterate, I wasn’t searching for one. But what I heard from industry insiders already had me impressed with new chef-owner Michael Scanlon.

As general manager at landmark Shadowbrook in Santa Cruz for 14 years – after running Rappa’s on Fisherman’s Wharf for seven – he served 10 years between the counties’ restaurant associations. Voluntarily attending endless meetings and financing trips out of pocket to Sacramento to talk reason into politicians is heroic enough. But he actually enjoyed the duty of resolving grease-trap regulations and advocating for the health department’s gold seal program instead of purely negative demerits.

“You have two choices,” he says. “Be part of the solution or part of the results. Hopefully we help Sacramento make decisions on facts and input.”

It gets better. He also helped with the carpentry on the remade San Carlos Basilica in Carmel, sits on the school advisory board well after his daughter graduated and is a quarter century in at the Aquarium as a volunteer diver.

McIntryre Winery’s Cheryl Warner has worked with him on committees, events and everywhere in between. “He’ll clean up a party or meeting and you don’t know it – and he doesn’t let you know he did it,” she says. “He is a saint, I swear.”

Only my tastebuds don’t care how many volunteer hours he’s put in if the ravioli is chewy. It’s not: The crab ravioli ($11.95) thrives on great handmade pasta sheets and sauce, though the filling needs some fattening.

The throwback Italian charm, meanwhile, is very much alive at Rombi’s. Hiswife Paula greets people with the lost art of genuine enthusiasm – and even meets regulars on the sidewalk – and the Italian minestrone is nicely split-pea authentic (though the salad is so-so). The veal Milanese ($27.95), pounded, breaded and fried, is a delicious treatment of the signature meat, but the preponderance of fresh heirloom tomatoes on top kills the crispiness of the coating. The tiramisu ($8.95) in a wine glass is a goodie I’d eat again.

The good news: On an early Wednesday evening, the place is almost full, each table gabbing and grubbing away, the staff anticipatory and attentive. The good and bad news: Everybody’s at least 60, which means they’ve found something they know and trust, but the next wave hasn’t yet dropped in.

The best news comes in two parts. One, they’ve got heroes on board to execute improvements. Two, Scanlon’s mushroom-crusted seabass fish special ($26.95) is a godsend. The coating of dried and crushed portobellos with seasoned breadcrumbs comes sizzled to a heavenly place. Gotta take Auntie Paula back soon.  

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