Many years ago, I was invited to have dinner at a restaurant called â€œThe Roman Tableâ€ located on 7th Avenue just north of Indian School Road. At the time, there was not much else around for food, except drive-ins and chain restaurants.
What struck me about the restaurant was that it had a faÃ§ade of faux alabaster Roman columns and twinkle lights that were a natural draw for the eyes in the evenings. What I remember about The Roman Table besides the exterior was that they served competent Italian food that was fresh, filling and reasonably priced.
But the Roman Table name is now part of Phoenix history and has been replaced by Harleyâ€™s Italian Bistro which kept many of the same menu items and enlarged the bar, but also kept the Roman columns and the twinkle lights. I have driven past the place a dozen times or so since the name change and was curious as to what was happening inside. I knew that The Roman Table was kind of a â€œred sauceâ€ Italian place where you could get large portions of decent Italian food that wouldnâ€™t break the bank.
Pulling into the back lot of the place, I was surprised at how busy the place was so early in the evening. I made my way into the restaurant and was greeted by a host who seated me at a two-top table next to the kitchen, but still overlooking most of the dining room. There were lots of reserved tables and plenty of people scurrying about because there was a fundraiser for the annual Dine Out For Life in progress for that night.
After being seated, I was handed a menu and told my waiter would be with me momentarily. Within moments, my waiter arrived with water and a quick rundown of the specials and a mention that someone would be by with bread. He told me a bit about the menu options and made some recommendations. He asked for my drink order and I requested a Diet Coke ($1.95).
He left for the kitchen and I got a chance to review the menu. What stood out for me was the nice selection of entrees. There were plenty of choices and I had a hard time deciding what I wanted. When my waiter returned with my beverage, I quizzed him again about some recommendations and he guided me with full descriptions. I ended up ordering the Bistro Chicken ($13.50), a House Salad ($4.25) and to start, an order of the Mozzarella Carrozza ($6.00).
Shortly after my waiter left, a member of the staff arrived with a basket of bread and a cup in which she poured a large amount of olive oil that had been lightly infused with savory spices. The bread was slices of Italian bread with a chewy crust and a soft interior. The olive oil was very flavorful but I think it would have been even better if the herbs had been more prevalent in the taste, which was a personal desire.
I waited about 10 minutes and my Mozzarella Carrozza arrived. On a stark, white plate, two large triangles of mozzarella cheese had been deep fried and were sitting with a spoonful of cheery, red Marinara sauce situated right down the middle. The exterior was crisp and I liked the fact that it wasnâ€™t the traditional processed bread crumb coating that has doomed wonderful mozzarella for years. Instead, it was more like a light, crispy batter that resembled tempura in a way. The cheese was hot and melted on the inside and the sauce was slightly sweet and had plenty of spicing to give an excellent contrast to the cheese. I thought this was an outstanding appetizer.
I had just finished my starter when my salad arrived. I was pleased from the minute I saw it because it wasnâ€™t just another plate of iceberg lettuce with grated carrot and a tomato wedge on the side. Instead, this salad has fresh zucchini and thinly sliced red onions in the mix to give some body and taste. It was also quite a large serving. The dressing was a tart and tangy vinaigrette that I thought was fantastic. It really made the salad shine through. Unfortunately, the salad wasnâ€™t perfect. The lettuce and vegetables were all at room temperature and the salad plate was slightly warm as though it just came from the dishwasher or had been sitting to close to an oven or range. The temperature issue really detracted from the salad. I still loved the salad on taste, but the tepid temperature really rubbed me the wrong way.
While I waited for my meal, I noticed the restaurant was near capacity. There was a large, full-service bar in the back of the restaurant which I thought was a wise location since it helped minimize the noise pouring into the dining area. The restaurant was decorated with bits and pieces of Italian knickknacks and art. It was a very comfortable setting.
There was about a 10-minute gap between my finishing my salad and the arrival of my Bistro Chicken. When it did arrive, the serving size was huge and I knew I would not be able to finish the meal. My waiter offered freshly grated cheese on top and I was more than happy to accept. The dish was a combination of grilled chicken, sun dried tomatoes, prosciutto, spinach, onions, garlic farfalle pasta all tossed in a creamy tomato and basil sauce . It was exceptionally rich. With the addition of the freshly grated cheese it made it almost too rich and if I ordered this dish again, I would refrain from having any cheese on it at all. I loved the mix of flavors and the delicious sauce. The pasta was perfectly cooked and had plenty of body. Everything about this dish was positive except a problem with an uneven temperature in the dish. The sauce was piping hot, but the chicken was lukewarm. It made for an odd sensation on the palate. Still, it was a minor quibble that could easily be fixed with a tightening up in the kitchen.
When my waiter returned, I informed him that I had thrown in the towel on trying to finish my dish. It was a very large portion that was rich and filling. He chuckled and asked if I wanted dessert. I declined and simply asked for my bill and a refill on my Diet Coke.
My bill and soda arrived very quickly and the total was $27.78 which included tax. I thought this was a good value considering the portion sizes and the quality of the items I had for my meal. The service was notable. My waiter was engaging and helpful and on top of keeping my water glass filled and used dishes cleared.
I paid my bill and exited out the back door to the parking lot. I pulled out of the parking lot, around the side of the building and back onto 7th Avenue. I drove past the exterior and remember the old Roman Table.
I liked Harleyâ€™s. The food was solid and there were plenty of items on the menu to keep my interest. I didnâ€™t like the temperature issue with the salad or the entrÃ©e, but I am hoping that was a fluke (that could easily be rectified with a little QA in the kitchen).
Harleyâ€™s wasnâ€™t the best Italian food I have had in the Valley, but it was a good, solid restaurant with a full menu and large portions.
Not a bad way to carry on in the old Roman Table location.
Harleyâ€™s Italian Bistro
4221 North 7th Avenue
Phoenix, AZ 85013
Hours: Monday through Friday â€“ 11 AM to 2 PM and 5 PM to 10 PM; Saturday and Sunday â€“ 5 PM to 10 PM
Notes: Parking is in the back with driveways on north and south sides of the building.
Alcohol Service: Full bar and decent wine list.