As we await the arrival of a replacement for our food writer, we decided to fill her space by finding out what our local restaurants are doing to survive the pandemic—even as they also keep us well-fed. Since 1980, the multiple award-winning Café Roma has been serving up the finest in authentic Italian cuisine, creating a fan base full of devoted longtime customers, and attracting new ones on a daily basis.

The year 2020 marked the beloved restaurant’s 40th anniversary,a much-anticipated celebration that—like all the other gala events scheduled last year—had to be shelved. Owner and General Manager Marco Rizzo recently talked with us about what this last year has been like, expressing his gratitude for the outpouring of support from the public, as well the sadness brought on by having to let go of so many loyal employees.

“It’s been heartbreaking to see so many good people lose their jobs,” said Rizzo, referring not just to his own staff, but to all the restaurant workers who’ve been affected. “We used to have as many as 27 staff members on any given day … now there are days when there’s just four of us here. … But the alternative was to shut down completely, and we didn’t want to do that.”

Over the past year, as shut-downs and brief openings came and went, Café Roma shifted deftly to an ambitious take-out business. For a time, they were able to re-open to inside dining at 25% capacity and outdoor dining as well. Rizzo said that business was very good, but as the county’s infection numbers climbed, the inevitable shutdown orders followed. Holidays have been especially challenging and there were days when all three of Rizzo’s daughters, ages 15 to 18, worked with their Dad to prepare the orders.

Rizzo said he has been heartened by the numerous displays of what he calls “little generosities.” Notes and calls and emails of support poured in, including an envelope full of cash that the customer requested be shared among the cooks who had been furloughed.

With the arrival of vaccines, there is hope that one day soon we can return to the pleasure of dining inside the elegant café by the train station, complete with the world-class wine list and impeccable service that Café Roma is known for. For now, however, we can still enjoy the comfort and joy of great food in the safety of our homes.

A quick trip to the website reveals an extremely user-friendly way to order take-out meals, and either pick them up or have them delivered by one of two local delivery companies. Warned that the “to-go” menu would be a pared-down version of the original, we were pleasantly surprised to see so many of the old favorites as well as newer dishes being offered.

Appetizers include tender beef carpaccio, prosciutto, and creamy burrata, and something that has never come off the menu in four decades—mozzarella marinara. There are five exceptional salads, including a winter one featuring poached pears. No less than ten varieties of pizza offer something for every pizza pie lover, including four that are called “sleeping pizzas” as they are offered frozen, to be “awakened” in your home oven in just 15 minutes. At least a dozen pasta dishes range from a simple capellini to a hearty meat ravioli, and more than 10 main courses include scampi piccata, pork chop Milanese, and braised lamb shank.

Everything is house-made, including the pasta, which explains the popularity of the light-as-air lobster pansotti, and the satisfying richness of the short rib raviolis. A trio of classic Italian desserts provides the perfect ending, and Rizzo tells us that this month, he’ll be offering a Valentine’s Day special dinner for two (or more!). At the time of this writing, the menu was still a secret, but visit caferomaslo.com or call 805-541-6800 for the big reveal.

If there was ever a time when a month dedicated to love would be welcomed, this has to be it. Valentine’s Day gives us all a chance to express our love for each other, and whether it’s with pretty paper cards, a surprise engagement ring, or a sumptuous meal, the family and staff at Café Roma are happy to play a part.