Authentic Roma Cuisine at Rosaria Steakhouse

Executive chef Simone Floretti prepares dishes infused with the flavors of his native Rome.

Photos by John Flaherty

The first thing you'll notice about Rosaria Steakhouse is the door. The dark, polished wood, rising to a graceful arch, is a sure sign that there is something unexpected going on inside the low-slung brick building tucked inconspicuously off Route 1 in Saugus.

Inside, a wide staircase sweeps up to the second-floor restaurant as the clinking of dishes and the murmurs of diners drift downward. Guests waiting to be seated can peruse wine bottles through the windows of a massive walk-in wine cooler adjacent to the entrance hall.

The overall effect is a world away from the neon signs and speeding cars on the nearby highway. The restaurant is both inviting and relaxing, refined yet comfortable, even before the first glass of Chianti has been sipped.

Rosaria Steakhouse is the brainchild of Joseph Pace, the owner of J. Pace & Son, a string of specialty food stores selling imported Italian ingredients, meats, and cheeses. Pace built the business from the original North End groceria his father started in the 1960s after the family immigrated from the Abruzzo region of Italy. The four J. Pace & Son locations—three in Boston and one underneath Rosaria Steakhouse in Saugus—offer catering services and take-out meals heavy on pasta and hearty sandwiches.

Last year, however, Pace made the leap to a full-service, upscale restaurant. And as he pursued the venture, it was his mother, Rosaria—a wonderful cook and frequent hostess—to whom he turned for both inspiration and a name for the new establishment.

Rosari's expansive- yet intimate- dining room

Pace’s vision is executed daily by chef Simone Floretti, a transplant from Rome, who infuses the menu with genuine Italian flavors, while Pace brings the warm hospitality of Italy to the front of the house.

Floretti’s domain is the compact kitchen at the back of the restaurant, where he holds court between a gleaming stainless steel counter and a bank of ovens and grills. He works in just a few square feet but moves nearly nonstop, bending to prepare some asparagus spears for the grill, pivoting to pull a sizzling rib eye off the heat, and reaching to spoon house- made tomato sauce studded with black olives over a dish of pasta.

Floretti has been cooking for 35 years, though he has never received any formal training. “I grew up with my family always in the restaurant business,” he says. “I picked it up.”

His family all worked in a popular and very busy restaurant near St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. When Floretti was old enough to work, he joined them, he explains as he seasons slabs of red steak for Rosaria diners. (He keeps the herbs and spices he uses a guarded secret.)

Since coming to the United States two decades ago, Floretti has worked in several restaurants that offered Italian cuisine with varying degrees of authenticity. So when he arrived at Rosaria in May 2013 and was tasked with adding some Italian flair to what had been strictly a steakhouse menu, he decided to forfeit Americanized staples like chicken parmesan and veal marsala in favor of recipes and ingredients true to his Roman upbringing.

Of the items he added to the menu (his personal favorite) is creamy polenta topped with braised short ribs and a tomato-Chianti reduction. The short ribs also show up tossed with wild mushrooms and truffle oil atop wide, chewy ribbons of fresh pappardelle. Pumpkin ravioli are dressed with sage brown butter and come accompanied by seared scallops.

Floretti’s touch also shows up in small, unexpected details. The Caesar salad is garnished with ricotta fritters instead of the more conventional croutons. The pas- ta carbonara that comes with the surf and turf features guanciale, a classic Italian cured meat from the cheek of a pig, rather than the standard pancetta or bacon.

Short ribs atop pappardelle

The creativity and intensity with which Floretti approaches his cooking is hinted at by his appearance. Dark tattoos climb his neck and silver pierces his brow. He is dressed entirely in black; the sleeves rolled halfway up his forearms are the only sign that he might notice the heat pouring from the ovens behind him as he ladles out a hearty bowl of pasta e fagioli and hands it to a server to be finished with a generous sprinkling of parmesan.

Once the food leaves Floretti’s hands, it heads out to the dining room. The space combines high ceilings, gently curving dark wood trim, and dim lighting to create an ambiance that is both spacious and intimate. The linen-draped tables lend a degree of formality, but the atmosphere is friendly. It is this mood that Pace strives for, as waiters circulate the room, greeting regulars, pouring wine, and checking in on diners.

Floretti takes pride in creating custom-designed events. He consults with clients to help them plan a personalized menu; these conversations sometimes even come with a dose of nostalgia as customers remember a favorite sauce or dish from their childhoods. And the restaurant does its best to accommodate such requests. In the function hall as well as the dining room, standardized packages are not Rosaria’s style.

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