Houston Italian Restaurant Turns to Technology to Bring Winemakers to Town — Virtually

Restaurateur Shanon Scott of ROMA in Rice Village

The dining room closures spurred by COVID-19 prompted many Houston restaurateurs and wine bar owners to start thinking of new, creative ideas of what they could do to continue not only serving customers but expanding their culinary worlds and wine knowledge. In the case of ROMA — located in a historic home built in 1939 at 2347 University — owner Shanon Scott turned to technology to bring the expertise of Italian wine makers to Houston by way of online guided tastings via Zoom. “These are designed for people who’d normally come in and have a wine dinner experience,” he said. “They get to experience ROMA’s food and wine selections safely in their homes.”

Every Thursday, a virtual wine tasting focusing on a specific region of Italy starts at 7:30 p.m. Guests preorder by calling ROMA at (713) 664-7581, then pick up their meals and wine between 5 and 7 p.m. Individual packages are $89, plus tax and gratuity. The price point of $119 per couple (again, plus tax and gratuity) is even more attractive. Either way, the virtual wine dinner pack includes a lot: a full-sized appetizer, pasta, entrée and three bottles of wine, plus the winemaker presentation with the ability for participants to ask questions. (The orders for couples doubles up on the full-size portions of each of the food items.) Scott says that chef Angelo Cuppone’s food portions are so generous that there’s likely to be not just wine left over after the event, but enough food for one more meal. Each course is designed to pair with one of the three wines.

ROMA virtual wine dinner
A recent ROMA virtual wine dinner hosted over ZOOM. Photo by Jeremy Parzen.

If the dinner structure sounds familiar, it’s because it is similar to last year’s Regions of Italy wine dinner series, a portion of which supported Houston Food Finder.

Updated, 5/26/20, 12:10 p.m.: The next virtual wine dinner is on Thursday, May 28 and focuses on the Tuscany region. The virtual guest is fourth-generation winemaker Leopoldo Papi of Pakravan-Papi. The menu is as follows:

  • Pappa al Pomodoro: Traditional Tuscany Tomato Soup served with Bread, paired with Pakravan-Papi, Malvasia, Tuscany 2018
  • Crespelle alla Fiorentina: Ricotta and Spinach filled Pasta “Fiorentina Style”, Pakravan-Papi “Prunicce” Tuscany 2017
  • Peposo di Manzo: Tuscan Beef Stew served with mashed potatoes and paired with Pakravan-Papi “Gabbriccio”  Tuscany 2012
Tuscan Beef Stew at ROMA. Photo by Holly Beretto.

Scott says because of the time zone difference, the Italian winemakers who are guiding the tasters are doing this around 1 a.m. their time  — and he says they are happy to do so. Italy was hard-hit by COVID-19, even before the United States was, and business was shut down for months. As a result, Scott says there’s a backlog of wine still in Italy that would have normally already been exported. “It’s an opportunity [for the winemakers] to broaden horizons and get the wines back into American markets. They love doing it. We love doing it, too,” said Scott.

The ability to directly ask questions of the winemakers is also a rare opportunity for guests. “Generally, they come to the states in the spring and that’s about it. Now, you can ask them questions like, ‘Why did you use that grape? Why did you age this in American oak?’ You can personally ask these winemakers questions you could never ask before.”

Coniglio in Umido, or stewed rabbit, roasted potatoes and carrots, at ROMA
Coniglio in Umido, or stewed rabbit, roasted potatoes and carrots, at ROMA. Photo by Gregory Buchold.

ROMA opened at 25% occupancy per the state of Texas guidelines on May 1, and this Friday, May 22, it will expand seating to 50% occupancy. One interesting benefit of the restaurant being located in an old home is that there are several different rooms ideal for separating parties. There’s a big, wood-decked patio, for starters, as well as the main dining room, bar area and two sizable private dining rooms. Scott says that customers have found the patio very appealing so far.

As far as the current sanitation and safety guidelines go for dining in, Scott says that issue has always been “paramount,” even before the COVID-19 scare. “I see my staff and my customers as family,” he said. “We’re very cautious and careful. The front door is propped open [for fresh air flow]. We want to make sure our guests are safe for this pandemic. Whatever it takes to make my family — my guests — to feel safe, I will do it.”

Even so, not everyone is ready to dine in yet — so the virtual wine dinners are continuing for the foreseeable future. To participate, call (713) 664-7581 to reserve your meal and bottles of wine.

While the virtual wine dinners are a fun and innovative option, Scott is still looking forward to the time when he can host these as in-person events again. “My guests are like family who I literally invite into my home. I cannot wait to do these again,” he said.

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