Named after the river that runs along the Franco-Italian border, Roia promises to draw inspiration from both countries’ culinary traditions. As a result, its menu demands a certain caliber of contemporary creativity in combining the two, very different culinary styles—creativity that is currently lacking in the New Haven restaurant scene. Thankfully, Chef Avi Szapiro has proven himself up to the task; while Roia’s offerings ultimate end up closer to the Italian side of the border, its success lies not in perfectly fulfilling the metaphor of its name, but in the grace and precision with which it brings to New Haven’s aging fine dining scene a much-needed modern sensibility.
Roia opened in the 100 year old Taft Hotel dining room after months of demolitions and reconstructions. The lobby, once a New Haven landmark of nobility, has been stripped of decades’ worth of renovations. What remains is a 1912 marble tiled floor and original wood paneling. The grand staircase, too, is gone, but the second signature relic of this historic building, the coffered ceiling, has been restored and repainted to its former glory. The yellow lighting from hanging bulbs gives off a slight sense of sentimentality and subdued class. The usual dress of the patrons, one could imagine, might involve tweed.
Just as the space revitalizes Taft Hotel’s aged architecture with a hint of modernity, Roia’s menu also tastefully updates traditional fare. Restaurants such as Skappo and Barcelona showcase authentic cuisines within a similar price range, but feature menus that are relatively straightforward as compared to Roia’s. Chef Avi Szapiro makes his changes with a delicate touch and a great deal of restraint. The seasonal dinner menu fits on one single-sided page. At a glance, the limited menu items show no surprises: nothing as strange as spheres on spoons or as gaudy as gold flakes here. One might already begin to see, then, that the menu design is indicative of Szapiro’s leanings towards modesty and minimalism, traits inherited from the Italian side of things.
My meal began with an amuse bouche: Tuscan bean purée with chives over cros- tini. It was chilled and carefully seasoned, with earthy undertones balancing precariously on a couple grains of salt and the tang of fresh chives. Quite effortlessly, it set the tone for a smooth, clean meal. The bread that was served shortly after- wards had a tough crust and is a little dry, but it does have the type of whole-wheat bite that many restaurants aim for but do not quite reach.
On the menu, the sautéed mushrooms and arugula salad appetizer did not seem particularly enticing, but Szapiro’s careful hand marries fresh mushrooms and tender arugula with a light sherry vinaigrette. Every dimension—the acid from the sherry, the sodium from the parmigiano, and the umami from the mushrooms—was barely there, but together, they came in perfect harmony. A second appetizer, the salmon tartare, also demonstrated a similar degree of elegance: wild caught coho salmon marinated gently in a citrus vinaigrette, served with a petite poached quail egg and a bowl of potato chips, and not a thing out of place.
The entrée of the evening, Duck Alla Diavolo, had some surprises for the palate. The breast was charred, sliced, and served on a slightly grainy polenta cake with swiss chard. The toughness of the polenta cake was redeemed by a punchy and spicy reduced tomato sauce that highlighted the gamey, somewhat robust duck breast. On a not so traditional route, the pappardelle was prepared with rose- mary and black pepper mixed into the eggy pasta dough. Thick ribbons of the pasta, cooked assertively al dente, were paired with a hen ragu stewed with vegetables to superb effect. The underwhelming pasta portions were redeemed by the full flavor Szapiro manages to pack into the seemingly straightforward dish.
Though Roia promises to derive its cuisine from dual traditions, the food ultimately comes off as more Italian than it is French. The meal is structured in accordance with Italian tradition: antipasto, primo, secondo, and dolce. The dishes are barely dressed in delicate sauces and precise garnishes, relying chiefly on the ingredients to sing for themselves. The weight of French haute cuisine is deliberately withheld until dessert, where very traditional Belgian chocolate custard was served, decorated with a bright sprinkle of sea salt. One gets the sense that Roia’s cuisine knows very well the French qualities it gives up: the complicated techniques, the butter, and the cream. And it does so because, as every modern restaurant should, it prioritizes extracting flavor over adhering to strict borders. Szapiro’s ingenuity lies here: in the understanding of his ingredients, their seasonality and their localities. He leaves the ingredients unfussed, letting the flavors stand out on their own. Roia doesn’t need to bother itself with reconciling Italian and French traditions as long as it continues to demonstrate, as it does now, that culinary excellence is derived from fundamentals—first, honest cuisine.