Some things never change and one of them is the venerable Roma Cafe, a mainstay of the Detroit restaurant scene since 1890. In fact, steady patrons are often struck by how their surroundings look just as they remember they did during long-ago visits: photos of old cars and buildings, white linen-covered tables and an Old World formality that beckons memories of a bygone era.
Metro Times: How long have you been at the helm here?
Jan Sossi Belcoure: About 20 years, after having sworn for years that I would never go in the restaurant business. I have a master's degree in guidance counseling. After several years, I got burned out on counseling families, so I moved downtown and went to work for Kelly Services and found there that I had a knack for business. I love food. I love wine. I love people. So I went to my father, whose dream had been that I would come into the business, and said, "Mea culpa, mea culpa. I think I would like to come into the restaurant business." At the time, I had a young baby that I could not leave at home. We put together a nursery upstairs and I could do both. She is now a senior in college. Hopefully, she will follow in my footsteps someday.
MT: Has Roma always been in your family?
Belcoure: No. The Marazza family bought what was then a boarding house where the farmers who brought their produce to the market would stay for 50 cents a night, which included a meal. There are rumors that it was a bordello, which probably would have created better stories. Word got around that Mrs. Marazza was a fabulous cook. Soon they opened a restaurant. My great uncle, Morris Sossi, came here from Turin, Italy, where he had worked for Fiat Motor Company, and ate many times at the restaurant, which he loved, eventually buying it in 1918. My father started working for him as a busboy, then as a waiter before being drafted. When he got out of the service, he ran the restaurant for my great-uncle and finally bought it outright in the '60s.
MT: What changes have been made over the years?
Belcoure: We have added more pastas, more healthful choices. Years ago most Americans thought of Italian food as spaghetti and meatballs. As people began to travel and see more of the world and become more sophisticated, their tastes changed. So we have added more pastas with more sauces, more healthful chicken dishes and salads in the Italian style. We have given a bit of a nod to Northern Italian cuisine butter and garlic, or olive oil and garlic, more seafood. But our sauce recipe is still the same. Our No. 1 seller is veal Parmigianino.
MT: Who are some of the famous people who have eaten here?
Belcoure: One night I got a call at home at 10 o'clock. Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli and Sammy Davis Jr. had done a show at the Fox and wanted to eat. They came in with their entourage. We opened up the kitchen and fed them. The restaurant was decorated for the holidays and looked beautiful and festive. We get a lot of local athletes and entertainers.
MT: How do you keep the quality of the food so high?
Belcoure: My father taught me pardon the cliché do not put your eggs in one basket. He felt that if you dealt with only one vendor for produce or meat or seafood, you ran the risk of their complacency. If they know that they have to fight for your business every day, they will always ship you the best product available. And they know that if we don't like it, it's going back.
MT: I have always felt that your bar is the most romantic in town. Am I alone?
Belcoure: We have had so many proposals here you wouldn't believe it. Every Valentine's Day there are a few. One guy even had a mandolin player here to help set the scene. The flowers had been delivered before they arrived. I've never seen anyone turned down.
MT: How's business?
Belcoure: Detroit is still an automotive town, so we are affected like most businesses. However, we are witnessing a resurgence downtown. There are new lofts that are attracting all kinds of people. There are artists who are moving in and opening galleries. The club scene and the new stadiums are bringing in more and more people. It's good for everyone. Eastern Market is an unpolished gem. There are plans to renovate and expand the market. The result should be more people. There will be benefits for everyone.
Roma Cafe is located at 3401 Riopelle St. in Detroit's Eastern Market; 313-831-4940. The city of Detroit recently announced plans to privatize the management of the Eastern Market. Plans include renovation of the sheds, a cleaner market and expansion of the existing facilities.Jeff Broder does this twice-monthly food interview for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org