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    Sister Roma of Roma’s Ristorante Italiano: ‘If You Love Someone, You Feed Them’

    By David Landis–

    They’ve called her “the most photographed nun in the world.” She’s been the subject of a paper doll. And she presides over the annual Hunky Jesus contest every Easter. Who dat? Why, none other than the popular drag queen and Sister of Perpetual Indulgence, Sister Roma.

    She’s had accolades for years. But she’s never had a restaurant named after her. Until now.

    Matthew Leum, owner of recently-opened Roma’s Ristorante Italiano in SOMA, explained: “Sister Roma and I have been friends for more than 30 years after meeting at The Stud. I found myself needing a name for the restaurant. I needed something that I could blend the Italian with but make it more local. Rome is my absolute favorite city. And then I thought, how about Roma’s? So, I called Roma up and said, ‘Can I name my restaurant after you?’ To which Roma responded, ‘At first, I was like—are you serious? And then I immediately said yes.'”

    How did the restaurant come to be? “My love of hospitality came when I moved to Paris in 1998,” Leum told me. “I was lucky to live in a gorgeous neighborhood near the Luxembourg gardens and a restaurant up the street was like my kitchen. I experienced many different restaurants—but my favorite one gave me a brass plaque on my favorite table in Paris.”

    “My love of the industry comes from the customer side,” he added. “I had an Italian chef fiancée and was supposed to open a new restaurant with him in the Castro. Our relationship ended in February 2020 and then I found this location (in the former Ruby’s on 3rd Street) and closed escrow in March 2020—just in time for the pandemic,” he said with a laugh.

    “It was not my idea to do this alone, but then I found chef Daniel Kuuk,” Leum continued. “His heritage is Mayan, but he grew up in the Mission and is a San Francisco native. He has a great pedigree, having worked at Boulevard, Cotogna, and Cala. He is incredibly devoted to this project. I remember chef Mark Paladini said, ‘Most restaurant owners try to control their chef—you are not doing that and look what’s happening. Your chef is growing into his own. You are allowing the artwork and the creativity to grow.'” Leum summarized it this way: “I would never limit a chef.”

    That is certainly true. When my husband and I tried outdoor dining at Roma’s (bring your sweater and a down jacket, by the way), we started with a bottle of crisp Kerner white wine from Italy’s Alto Adige district that didn’t break the bank. We continued with a homemade corn soup that had just the right amount of creaminess, drizzled with olive oil and topped with crispy homemade croutons; then graduated to an innovative roasted tomato tagliatelle (for me) with bacon, chili flakes, and jalapenos (whoever heard of that, but it was delicious!). The homemade pasta was so light it melted in your mouth (think: as good as Acquerello).

    My husband had the chicken pomodoro with chili flakes and garlic on a bed of bucatini pasta—and apparently loved it, since there was none left for me. For a side, we tried the perfectly tempura-battered broccoli and also ordered feathery light homemade focaccia, served with Italian olive oil and a soupcon of green olives on the side. All the entrees are budget-friendly and boast family-sized portions.

    The restaurant also does delivery and has a well-stocked Italian grocery inside with all sorts of delicious Italian specialties. When indoor dining resumes, of course, Roma’s will offer that as well. By the way, a shout out to the carefully cultivated wine list from wine director Laura Pauli. There are lots of phenomenal Italian wines to choose from at reasonable prices. You can buy them at the grocery and they’re available on the menu as well.

    So, I had to ask Roma, “What’s your favorite selection on the menu?” Her response: “The local corn soup. Thank God Matthew’s food is so good, because can you imagine how embarrassing it would be when your name is on a restaurant and the food sucks? I can honestly recommend it without hesitation. I also love the Brussels sprouts. I love big meaty balls, so he put meatballs on the menu just for me. Even the salads are great. It’s all yummy.”

    The Gay Gourmet asked Leum, “Why a grocery AND a restaurant?” He explained, “I closed escrow on the day that all restaurants closed—March 16. I was left holding keys to a restaurant I couldn’t open, plus I couldn’t apply for an SBA loan because I had no restaurant history. The city (at that point) thought indoor dining could re-open in July. I negotiated with landlords about deferred rent and partial payments. On July 6, the city announced the continuation of indoor dining indefinitely. I had a bit of a cry. And then I said, ‘I’m going to open an Italian grocery.’ My father owned supermarkets in Los Angeles. I call Roma’s a ‘grocerant.’ We opened on August 1 with a grocery and full takeout/delivery menu.”

    One of the big differentiators for Roma’s is its community focus. Said Leum, “I had always intended on having a large community theme. One of the nicest things is that it has grown organically from people who are supporting me and my journey. Roma’s did a Thanksgiving meal kit for sale and I sold more kits to give to the community than people who came and picked up dinner. I put something on NextDoor about the fact that people were purchasing meals for the community and I was contacted by Family Mosiac, who saw my post and said they had immigrant families in need. On Thanksgiving, we delivered 25 meals, on Christmas Eve about the same, and on New Year’s Eve we had about 12–15 meals delivered to those at-risk families. I delivered those myself.”

    “Roma and I now have a ‘Roma delivery Wednesday’ where she’s in drag and it’s the two of us and it’s a great outreach to the community,” Leum added. “We’ve had amazing response. One person bought 20 dinners for Maitri Hospice. At Firehouse #3, we had pre-arranged a delivery for the ten fireman who worked there. That day, one of the team members died in an unexpected accident and we still delivered the meals. It was a very moving thing we did.”

    Roma said, “The firemen had been at services all day so we got there at the end of the day—they were so tired and hungry, they were very touched that we did that. We also served meals to the hospital at UCSF: the frontline workers, the people who are suffering because of COVID-19. It’s a blessing to have this opportunity with something so tangible and real as a warm, hot meal. If you love someone, you feed them.”

    I asked both, “When you’re not eating at Roma’s, where do you like to eat?” Without taking a breath, Roma responded: “I’m a huge fan of Rocco’s—another family-run business. That was the place that I featured when I was on Check Please, Bay Area. I’m friends with Chef Don.”

    Said Leum: “I tend to be very Castro-centric because I like supporting the LGBTQ community. I stole my manager Eric from Harvey’s—it’s my go-to. Harvey’s is all about the people. I love going and supporting them. I also love Osaka Sushi and Anchor Oyster Bar.”

    I then asked, “What’s next for Sister Roma? And Roma’s?”

    “I’m hosting the SFLGBT Center’s Soirée Saturday, April 10; then Easter is coming up and it’s our big Sisters anniversary party—normally, we would welcome 10,000 for the Easter Bonnet/Hunky Jesus Contest at Dolores Park,” Roma replied. “The event benefits SF Queer Nightlife Fund and we’ll do a virtual version of that with drag on Sunday, April 4.”

    Added Leum: “I can’t wait for San Francisco to offer 100% indoor dining and then Roma’s can be the restaurant I thought I was buying. Long term, the restaurant next door closed permanently. It also was LGBTQ-owned. It’s the same landlord. My dream is to take that over, open an actual Italian deli (like Lucca’s in the Mission) and have both operations working at the same time. If I can pull off two businesses during a pandemic, that would be great.”

    And finally, from Chef Daniel, his recipe for that yummy Roasted Tomato Tagliatelle. Now, THAT’s Italian!

    The Tomato Sauce

    1 28-ounce can San Marzano tomatoes, drained
    1 large yellow onion, sliced
    1 cup garlic, sliced (note: its flavor will mellow when caramelized and roasted)

    Caramelize the onion and garlic, add drained tomatoes, and roast in oven for 25 minutes at 400 degrees F.

    The Main Dish

    70 grams (approximately 3 slices) of cooked bacon
    Parmesan cheese to preference
    10 grams (about 3 cloves) of sliced garlic
    8 grams (about 1/2 tablespoon, or to taste) sliced jalapeño
    A pinch of chili flakes
    One heaping scoop of the roasted tomato sauce
    80 grams (about 1/2 cup) of chicken stock
    Cooked homemade tagliatelle (or use DeCecco dried pasta)

    Render bacon in a sauté pan, add sliced garlic, and let it get slightly brown. Once garlic has some color, add jalapeño, tomato sauce, and the pinch of chili flakes. Bring back to the stovetop and add the chicken stock. Season to taste, adjusting heat to your preference. Finish off by grating cheese in the pan. Add cooked tagliatelle, homemade if possible. Give it a few tosses and serve.

    Roma’s Ristorante Italiano: https://www.sfromas.com/

    Sister Roma and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence: https://www.thesisters.org/roma

    David Landis, aka “The Gay Gourmet,” is a foodie, a freelance writer and a PR executive. Follow him on Instagram @GayGourmetSF, on Twitter @david_landis, email him at: david@landispr.com or visit him online at: www.gaygourmetsf.com

    Published on February 25, 2021