Friday, January 23, 2009

Pomp(ilios) and Circumstance

Many Italian restaurants have some sort of declaration that goes something like, “We’re a piece of Italy in the middle of (insert random location here).” Some of us long to visit Italy, but aren’t silly enough to believe we will get that experience by sitting in the corner booth at Vito’s Pasta Warehouse downtown.

The best Italian restaurants are those that give you visions of what Italy may be like just be sampling the food. They don’t pretend to have been created by Silvio Berlusconi, to have served dinner every night to the late Pavarotti or to have been a hangout for a group of “Good Fellas”. They let their heritage, and kitchen craft, speak for itself. This is where Pompilio’s, a greater Cincinnati, Ohio establishment, comes in.

Located in Newport, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Pompilio’s was established in 1933 by Colonel John Michael Pompilio. The eatery and bar hangs its hat on, “…a lasting reputation for fine, authentic Italian food.” The Colonel may not be the most famous Italian, but he and his wife, Johanna Agnes Colletta (Pompilio), were definitely natives who brought their heritage and traditions. Colonel Pompilio was born in the City of Castelgandolpho in the Province of Foggia in 1888. Mrs. Pompilio was born in the City of Matrice in the Province of Campbasso in 1894. They had four sons, who were all born in Cincinnati, and ran their restaurant that continues today in a portion of old Newport.

Though, Pompilio’s has since changed hands. Colonel Pompilio died in 1968, Mrs. Pompilio passed away in 1974 and the last of the four sons, Daniel Joseph Pompilio, passed away in 1998. But in 1982 the Mazzei and Argento families took ownership of the establishment and strived to stick to the standards developed by the Pompilio family. This includes making their ravioli, lasagna, soups and sauces in-house by hand. The vast majority of the menu items are a product of the Pompilio’s kitchen (no outside help) with assistance from Mrs. Pompilio’s recipes.

It is one thing to have one person sing the praises, but it is another to have some well-known names that agree. Remember the Oscar-winning movie “Rainman” starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise from 1988? The cast and crew made Pompilio’s a site for filming and had the restaurant serve as their unofficial cafeteria during the segments of the movie that were shot in Greater Cincinnati. The walls are filled with photos of Hoffman and Cruise interacting with the staff as well as autographs & mementos.

The inviting atmosphere would get most people to at least grab a seat and take in the wonderful aromas that creep from the kitchen and inhabit old building. During our visit, we began with the Fresh Calamari Gardenaire. It came across just like the menu description: Tender calamari hand-bread, fried, and tossed with a chunky marinara sauce, olives and pepper rings. Not only did it hit the spot. It more than adequately prepared us for a filling and satisfying meal.

My dinner entree was the Rigatoni a la Teresa. A mountain of layers consisting of sausage, hard-boiled eggs and meatballs topped with melted slices of provolone and tomato sauce. I have a large appetite and love food, but I couldn’t force all of it down. My eyes and stomach fought a tremendous battle of which my stomach won out. All the better, the leftovers made for an even better lunch the next day.

For dessert it was a slice of traditional Tiramisu. It, too, came across flawless: creamy with hint of coffee and cocoa.

The restaurant offers traditional Italian cuisine, subs, paninis, beef, fish, chicken, soups, salads and some American fare. Also, Pompilio's has a down home atmosphere that welcomes anyone from local families, to passersby, to those who want a break after strolling by the historic buildings and architecture of old Newport.

If you are in the mood to just relax with a quick drink, you are in for another surprise. The bar comes complete with a tile floor, beveled-glass windows and a classic hand-carved bar. The eatery claims the "Back Bar" was handcrafted and built of cherry wood by the George Wiedemann Brewing Company in 1886. The barroom has stayed the same except for the sad fact that the pressed metal ceiling has been removed, and a second bar made of mahogany was installed after Prohibition. And Pompilio’s boasts of the first Kentucky liquor license to be issued once Prohibition ended. A little known fact that makes for good conversation.

I have to give Pompilio’s props for the huge portions all around and at a decent price to boot. The eatery can be found at 600 Washington Avenue in Newport, Kentucky and have a website that details everything you have read here and more: They can also be reached by phone: (859) 581-3065.

Pompilio’s was a great find and my party found it by accident, literally. We were in downtown Cincinnati one afternoon and wanted to find a place that wasn’t typical or extremely crowded. The Pompilio’s suggestion came from the driver of the cab we were able to flag down. He had been a resident of the Queen City area his entire life. He understood what we were looking for and directed us to one of Greater Cincinnati’s hidden gems.

That is a tip for anyone who travels and wants to avoid the hustle & bustle of restaurant chains and fly-by-night eateries. Be sincere and ask a local. Trust me, you will not be disappointed.

Just do me a favor. When someone visits your town…return the jesture!

No comments: