21/03/2006 - 21:00

It’s arrivederci to Fremantle’s favourite flavours of Roma

21/03/2006 - 21:00


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Some of Perth’s most seasoned diners have circled the wagons and are refusing to let Fremantle’s Roma Restaurant go quietly into the night.

It’s arrivederci to Fremantle’s favourite flavours of Roma

Some of Perth’s most seasoned diners have circled the wagons and are refusing to let Fremantle’s Roma Restaurant go quietly into the night.

After plans were announced recently to close the Italian restaurant-cum-Perth icon, the Abrugiato family, who have run it for 52 years, have been inundated with those wanting to say goodbye.

And it is hard to think of another Perth restaurant whose closure could prompt such genuine feelings of grief and loss. Because with the Roma, many people feel like they are losing a member of the family.

And perhaps more amazing still is that the Roma is here after all. It has survived in an industry that is often cut-throat and ruthless, where everyone dreams of lasting success but few ever taste it.

It was 1952 when Frank Abrugiato arrived from Italy’s Abruzzi and began working at Northbridge restaurant La Tosca.

“Restaurants were his trade” daughter Vivian recalled and it was only two years later that Mr Abrugiato realised his dream in his new country and opened the Roma restaurant in sleepy Fremantle.

From that moment on, the Roma became etched in the Perth dining scene forever. Frank and wife Nela lived upstairs – not for convenience but for necessity. They worked hard in the early years to keep the restaurant afloat and soon it had a steady following.

The reason why the Roma has been so successful in outlasting nearly every single restaurant of its day is quite simple. It has done so because it accords very closely with that famous restaurant adage – good food and a good price with excellent service. It’s just a testament to the team that they could get it right when so many others cannot.

But there was always a certain Roma charm as well. The famous laminex tables circa 1954 – the spaghetti and chicken, the minestrone soup – and most of all, the atmosphere that the Abrugiato created.

With the sad passing of Frank in 2000, the responsibilities of the restaurant fell to three of his daughters – Morena, Mirella and Vivian. Nela still comes in to work every night.

Asked why the Roma has lasted for so long, the daughters simply replied: “Mum and dad”.

“They had a very good raport with customers, especially dad, he had a lot of personality,” Morena said. “We have always been very family focused.

“It is for so many people the first restaurant they ever ate in. It is the place they learnt to eat and to dine out.

“Most of our customers don’t think they are eating in a restaurant, they feel like they are eating in a friend’s home”.

Three generations of the Abrugiato family have run the Roma and in turn they have created such a family orientated environment. And it is a hard business – the restaurant is open six nights a week. And that is the sad irony of the Roma really – that in such a family orientated business, it puts such a strain on your own family.

“That’s our name and we’re expected to be here,” Vivian said.

“We can’t employ managers because when our customers come in they expect to see one of us here.”

But on April 1, the Roma will close its doors for the last time. No more free bread, no more $1 corkage.

Asked what some of their favourite memories of the restaurant will be, the family ran off a list of the who’s who that have shared a Roma table.

David Bowie, Barry Humphries, Ray Martin and Alan Bond, of course, especially during the America’s Cup days. Mr Bond stopped by to farewell Nela a few nights ago.

And the decision to close – it is simply the right time, Vivian said. “We want to close while we’re still popular. It felt like the right time – it is a great tradition and we feel privileged to be a part of it.”

In the run to the finish, the Roma has been inundated with customers wanting to say goodbye.

The restaurant has been averaging more than 400 people a day – most of them the very same regulars who have patronised the restaurant for so many years.

They are the same people who are feeling the loss more than most but of course some aren’t taking it too well. Some have signed a petition to stop the closure going ahead, some have approached the deputy mayor of Fremantle to see if he can intervene.

So what began on High Street in 1952 with eight small tables, has grown into a restaurant that can sit 150, make you feel at home, and quietly went about changing the way West Australians ate out forever.


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