Long before Portsmouth became the restaurant capital of northern New England, before there was a Prescott Park, and even before our Teenage Bottomless Pit's grandmother was born a few blocks away, the Rosa opened its doors on lower State Street, dishing up Italian food for Port City families in the shadow of the then-new Memorial Bridge.
Almost nine decades later, the Rosa is still there. It was dicey for a time last year: The previous owners closed the place and put it up for sale in January 2013, citing a down economy and traffic problems exacerbated by the closure of the by-then-decrepit, 90-year-old bridge.
But new owners came along and rescued the landmark, did a major renovation and reopened in September, not long after the new Memorial Bridge opened. Traffic is now flowing smoothly again on State Street, and traffic is flowing heavily into the Rosa, at least judging from our visit on a recent Saturday night.
The new Rosa is a hopping place, a big, open-concept space with two main dining areas divided by the bar and kitchen areas. Rich woodwork, exposed brick and well worn floors give the sense that the place has been there forever; modern ceilings, light fixtures and other elements lend a contemporary touch.
The menu is updated as well. The Rosa may have begun life as a spaghetti house, but the modern menu is lighter and more varied, and, for Portsmouth, reasonably priced.
The Bottomless Pit and I arrived for an early Saturday dinner — just ahead of the rush. We didn't have to wait, but we didn't see many empty tables left as we were seated. Our server, Erica, quickly supplied us with a stoppered bottle of filtered water along with a basket of warm Italian bread and a dish of seasoned dipping oil. The bread caused TBP's eyes to light up, but he restrained himself this time, leaving plenty of room for the courses to follow.
He started with Crab Cakes ($13), two ample cakes served on greens with a small drizzle of lemon herb aioli. The crabmeat was more shreds than chunks, and the cakes were mildly flavored, relying on the aioli to make them interesting. Not the most exciting crab cakes we've had.
I hesitated orderding the Lobster Risotto ($11), fearing it would be too big or heavy for an appetizer. It was neither. In fact, it was wonderful: rich, creamy risotto, generously studded with lobster claw meat, in a serving just big enough to satisfy without being filling. One of the best appetizers I've had in some time.
The entree menu features pastas, beef, chicken, veal and seafood, plus a handful of house specialties. Red sauces are present, but share equal billing with other, lighter toppings. All entrees are served with a house salad, with house Italian dressing on the side.
TBP bounced all over the menu before deciding at the last second on the Herb Grilled Hanger Steak ($22), served with broccoli rabe and Parmesan steak fries. The steak was flavorful and tender and coated with a tangy, slightly sweet house-made steak sauce. When it arrived, it looked like there was too much sauce, but TBP raised no objection and there wasn't much left on the plate when he finished. There were, however, some fries left. They were addicting — cheesy, salty, and garlicky — but to my surprise, TBP thought there were just too many. Never thought I'd see day…
My Shrimp and Mussel Scampi ($19) was nothing short of excellent. A generous helping of big shrimp was tossed with spaghetti in a rich, wine/butter sauce loaded with minced garlic and shallots, all surrounded by a ring of mussels in their shells. I love every ingredient in this dish, and the Rosa's combination was teriffic. We asked for a second basket of bread to get every last bit of the sauce.
The entrees were satisfying, but small enough that we didn't feel too stuffed to go for dessert. TBP ordered a vanilla gelato ($6) with a cannoli ($3) on the side. As we walked back to the car, he allowed that the combination may have been a little too sweet; the gelato alone would've been enough. (He's learning… slowly.)
I ordered the Flourless Almond Chocolate Cake ($6), a big wedge comprising a thick espresso ganache layer, a thin almond creme filling and a layer of chocolate mousse. It was delicious, but the ganache was very dense and a little dry; I decided to take half of it home for later.
The Rosa also has a full page of pizza options, as well as a lunch menu of sandwiches served until 4 p.m. The dining room includes bar-stool seating along one side of the open-concept kitchen, a great option for solo diners or those looking to watch the action in the kitchen while eating.
It had been years since I last visited the Rosa, and the new version is a major change. With a great menu, pleasant, helpful service and a prime location, it has all the ingredients for a bright future to match its rich history.