I f you feel as though you’ve stepped back in time upon entering the young downtown restaurant ROÌA, it’s because, in a sense, you have.
Before its grand opening in March, ROÌA, located in a 100-year-old space that was once the restaurant at the legendary Taft Hotel, underwent an extensive restoration. Walls and layers of linoleum added by various proprietors over the years were stripped away, revealing the decorative wall paneling and original tiled flooring that once dazzled in the cavernous space.
“It was just asking to be itself again,” says Meera Laube-Szapiro, who owns the restaurant with her husband, executive chef Avi Szapiro. After removing the stuff that had built up in there, “it really felt like the space itself was allowed to shine.”
The pair, who moved from Brooklyn to open the restaurant and now live just a few stories above in the Taft Apartments, rounded out the restoration with a treasure hunt, scouring antique markets for décor to complement the room’s history, from cabinet handles to paint colors. The bathroom sinks are from 1912, the year the Taft opened, and the dining room’s main chandelier was crafted in the late 1800s.
Today, jazz music and a staff that knows what it’s doing make the place feel grand but not grandiose. Stools seat eight at the elegant bar and rectangular booths beckon parties of two or four nearby; on the other side of a wood-framed separator with square translucent textured-glass windows are semicircle booths. Other tables are out in the open or tucked in corner nooks for quiet tête-à-têtes, and a gorgeous wrap-around mezzanine overlooks the room’s signature deep-red accents, rich brown woods, fresh white walls and glowing lamps and lanterns.
Originally from Columbia, Chef Szapiro, who apprenticed in Paris and London as well as under renowned chef Paul Bertolli in California, has designed an inventive French- and Italian-influenced menu at ROÌA, named for a river that flows through the two countries.
Dinner offers dressed-up favorites including, from the French end of the river, the Steak Frites—a grass-fed version served with tarragon-shallot butter. From the Italian stretch, there’s a market-price Pesce Di Giorno (fish of the day) with local vegetables, and a peppery Pappardelle with Hen Ragu.
Among starters, a must-try is the Raw Local Fluke. The appetizer-sized portion, from waters about an hour away in Stonington, CT, is served with a truffle and lime vinaigrette, the truffle providing just enough savoriness to temper the bright citrus; it’s a dressing light enough to let the fresh fish shine, and it’s all topped with a smattering of crunchy pine nuts. The delightfully salty Duck Prosciutto, served with pickled vegetables, leads a selection of cured and preserved small dishes.
Brunch is on Sunday, when you might start with an Almond Croissant before moving onto Les Benedictines (Eggs Benedict). There’s often live jazz, and Laube-Szapiro says families are a fixture. Kids can ogle the seemingly mile-high ceilings while parents enjoy mimosas. Those who work and play downtown during the day will happily note that the restaurant has just expanded its operating hours, now open for lunch Wednesday through Saturday, with a distinct menu.
For dinner entrees, you’ll spend in the low- to mid-$20s, a bit less for pasta, before tax and tip, which feels appropriate for the overall experience, and for the fact that many of the ingredients Szapiro uses are local and relatively small-batch. He knows most of his food providers, including nearby vendors like Woodbridge’s Massaro Farm, and enjoys the challenge of cooking with items that are more sustainably grown, raised or caught. “It pushes you creatively,” he says.
The restaurant has received well-deserved fanfare, including an “excellent” rating and glowing review from The New York Times just a few months after opening.
It’s a far cry from Avi’s situation as a young, aspiring chef. He speaks candidly about the not-quite-sanctioned truffle-importing operation he once launched with friends, carrying the precious mushrooms by backpack from Spain to the United States. The reason for the risk? “I wanted to meet all the great chefs,” he recalls, and selling hard-to-get truffles was a good way to get into their kitchens.
Now all he has to do is walk downstairs.
261 College Street, New Haven (map)
Wed-Sat 12-2:30pm & 5:30pm-close, Sun 10:30am-2pm & 4:30-7:30pm
Written by Cara McDonough. Photographed by Meghan Capozzi Rowe.