You get the idea at Trattoria Romana South that the restaurant is the expression of a particular personality, even if you don't know that it was established by Luciano Canova. He signaled that directly with the popular Luciano's in Wrentham, Massaschusetts, and in other ways with the original Trattoria Romana in Lincoln.
Ah, families. Prominently displayed is a black-and-white photograph of a boy with his mother, Corrina, her hand resting protectively on young Luciano's shoulder. He was born and raised in a small village outside of Rome, and many of the photographs of people and landmarks lining the walls were taken by him on his numerous visits to Italy.
The restaurant establishes an easy balance between plain (sturdy wine glasses rather than crystal providing a comfortable informality) and fancy (tablecloths not hidden under bistro butcher paper). The waitstaff all wear burgundy shirts atop black pants or skirts, smartly complementing the light rose walls.
A complementary bowl of mixed vegetables was brought to the table. Nice. Unfortunately, they were steamed to death, so only Johnnie, jonesing for broccoli, more than sampled them.
Frequently, there's a long list of pizzas at Italian restaurants, appealing to as wide a spectrum of diners as possible. Here, as though trying to coax customers further into the menu, only one is offered. The simplest of versions, pizza margherita ($9.95) is buried among the appetizers, thoughtfully revised with fresh tomato slices instead of sauce. Other appetizers ($8.95-$10.95) range from fried calamari in a variation of the locally standard preparation (with hot cherry peppers) to lobster- and asparagus-filled ravioli. But nearly all of the starters are traditional southern Italian antipasti, such as pan-fried eggplant wrapped around ham and ricotta, and mozzarella with prosciutto. There is even an oversized meatball — composed of ground beef, veal, and sausage pork — proffered upon vinegared mixed greens. That last item is polpetta alla Corinna, revealing it to be Luciano's nostalgic, high-protein comfort food.
Our table shared the mixed antipasto platter ($10.95), enough for four to taste a standard assortment, from buffalo mozza-rella and provolone to prosciutto and Genoa salami. It contained the traditional fat-spotted mortadella instead of a more widely acceptable substitution. There were two soups ($4.95), but instead of trying their classic pasta e fagioli, a bean soup impossible to ruin, I chose zuppa de cipolle, to see if their version of baked onion soup, with many ways to go wrong, was acceptable. The broth was rich enough, but the Swiss cheese topping, not Gruyere, wasn't browned as is preferable for a bonus taste.
For main courses, there are many interesting choices of veal and seafood, chicken and pasta, and not just cacciatores and spaghettis. Among them, less common offerings are salmon with Maine lobster ($19.95) and Provimi veal T-bone steak. My dish was the vitello arragosta ($19.95). There were several lightly floured and sautéed veal medallions under a tasty sherry cream sauce plus a smidgen of béarnaise, over cappellini that didn't quite hang onto its bite, though it wasn't terribly overcooked. There was not much lobster on top, but it was, after all, described as a garnish.
Johnnie chose the stuffed chicken breast ($16.95), leisurely named bocconcini della nona al vin santo. Cooked with restraint and tastily glazed, it contained mozzarella and sage but also "imported baby porchetta," which sounded to us like a mushroom but actually was pork. The accompanying sautéed button mushrooms compensated, and the Parmesan risotto was nicely prepared.