On a sunny day, the light reflecting off the shiny chrome diner at 5031 Dorchester Road could very well blind you. What is this relic way up here on this forgotten stretch of Dorchester? It looks like something straight out of Happy Days, a place Richie and the Fonz might go if Al’s ever closed down.
The gleaming structure in North Charleston is called Pizza Roma. It may look like a typical retro diner, but it’s not quite a trip down memory lane a la Johnny Rocket’s. Up front, there’s a counter for ordering, booths along the windows, and a giant spinning dessert carousel loaded with cakes, pies, muffins, and cannolis. (Mental note: Save room for dessert.) Its back wall looks half-painted, but is decorated with a collection of 1950s diner art — the kind with flashing signs and blinking car lights.
The menu is populated with classic diner items like burgers, waffles, and a BLT, and there’s a lot of talk about Heather and her special creations. Heather Sonoski is the chef and co-owner (along with her husband Randy), as well as an adjunct professor at the Culinary Institute of Charleston. She personalizes many of the classic dishes. Instead of a plain Philly cheesesteak, she has a signature burgundy Philly ($7.99), which turned out to be one of the best cheesesteaks I’ve ever had. And I say this on the heels of a trip to Philadelphia where I ate at the likes of Geno’s and Jim’s. But once I sunk my teeth into the juicy burgundy Philly at Pizza Roma, Geno and Jim were but pale memories. Heather’s version loads a soft Italian roll with tender and flavorful chopped steak smothered with piquant swiss cheese and topped with her signature burgundy mushrooms. The mushrooms are simmered with garlic and onions for hours in a sweet, yet acidic burgundy, bringing out an array of bold flavors. It’s worth noting that the burgundy mushrooms can also be added to the pizza, like the white burgundy pie ($16.99), which is also topped with ricotta, mozzarella, garlic, and oregano.
And that brings us to the thing that makes Pizza Roma so special: the pizza. Both the dough and sweet tomato sauce are made in-house, and the mozzarella cheese is grated daily. The crust is phenomenal, the creation of a chef that knows her way around a ball of dough. It’s thin, crispy, and garnished with just the right amount of garlic. The pies boast large slices and come in three sizes: 10-inch ($5.49), 14-inch ($9.49), and 16-inch ($11.49). All the typical toppings are available, as well as a few unique options such as salami, eggplant, and broccoli.
There are a variety of specialty pizzas, like the Hurricane ($15.99), which has a sweet tomato base topped with pepperoni, jalapeños, mushrooms, and extra mozzarella cheese. Instead of slices, the jalapeños are chopped up into a spicy relish, giving a steady bite of heat to each slice. The barbecue chicken ($13.99) is layered with mozzarella, tender grilled chicken, and drenched in a tangy barbecue sauce. The saucing needs to be tamed, but it was good, nonetheless.
The house banzini bread ($4.95) is a nice take on traditional garlic bread with the addition of creamy seasoned ricotta, mozzarella, and parmesan. The soft and cheesy bread is served with the sweet housemade marinara. The meatballs are also made in-house and can be found on a massive plate of spaghetti ($10.99) or a meatball sub ($6.99). The sub is toasted with melted mozzarella, parmesan, and marinara. The meat was moist, albeit excessively seasoned with oregano.
Because Pizza Roma is a pizza diner, I opted to try the signature ricotta-based breakfast pizza ($6.95), which comes with mozzarella and a choice of two scrambled or sunny-side-up eggs. This 10-inch pie had a slightly thicker crust than the New York-style pizza, but still gave off a garlic aroma and had a subtle crunch. I opted for the runny eggs, which oozed over the cheese in a delicate manner.
Being a diner, they have other breakfast items too, like the gravy train ($4.99), two flaky housemade Southern biscuits covered in creamy sausage gravy. The stone-ground grits had to be doctored up with butter, salt, and pepper, as they were lumpy and not as creamy as I would’ve liked them to be. A sweeter, more unique breakfast choice is the red velvet pancakes ($7.99) served with sweet cream cheese and decadent Godiva chocolate maple syrup.
The soundtrack to my several Pizza Roma visits was the constantly ringing telephone. Orders for pizza delivery and carry-out appear to drive business. There were never more than three to four tables occupied with diners, and there was always a single employee trying to keep up with phone calls, manage orders, and wait on tables. During two of my three visits, I waited an average of 10 minutes before I was able to place a drink order. I also had to ask for napkins and silverware after the food already made it to the table. The tables, although wiped down, were streaked and sticky.
This got me thinking: Why is this quaint little diner mostly vacant, yet getting bombarded with delivery and carry-out orders? Because while the food borders on great, the service doesn’t. Pizza Roma could easily be a family favorite dining destination if the same dedication that goes into the food is carried over to the service and appearance. A night spent finishing up the half-painted wall and tearing down the bright blue trim tape would give the place a better look. Having an additional server or a dedicated cashier to manage carry-out and delivery orders would help too. I’m not expecting my seat to be pulled out for me or my napkin to be folded every time I get up from the table, but basic service like having silverware readily available and drink refills occurring regularly should be common practice at any dining establishment.
Oh, and about that dessert carousel. Be sure to order something from it. The cakes, pies, muffins, and cannolis are all made in-house by Sonoski, with help from Chef Heather B. Norkin-Cahhala, who was recently executive pastry chef at Bobby Flay Steak. A slice of red velvet cake ($4.95) is enormous, three layers to be exact, and is as moist as can be. The devilish, dark red cake is the perfect balance between vanilla and chocolate, with a hint of cocoa and plenty of sugary, airy cream cheese frosting in every bite — delicious.