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Fine blend of Italian dishes, history in seaside city

The Rosa Restaurant
80 State Street, Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Open Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, 1 to 9:30 p.m.
Major credit cards accepted
Accessible to the handicapped

Portsmouth is all about history and, really, The Rosa Restaurant is, too -- history and good food.

The Rosa has been in the same location -- a brick structure built in 1815 -- since it was opened by former Portsmouth Naval Shipyard worker Paul Rosa in 1927. When Rosa lost his job at the shipyard in 1926, his mother suggested he take his restaurant experience (from jobs he had during high school) and her Italian family recipes and open an Old World eatery in her home.

The restaurant stayed in the Rosa family until 1981, when Joe Hunt, a regular at The Rosa and a friend of the family, purchased the restaurant. He and his wife, Pamela, while making improvements over the years, never lost the original Old World feel -- or the Rosa family recipes.

This is a great stop for dinner or lunch if you plan a trip to nearby Strawbery Banke Museum or if you're just window-shopping in this beautiful old city.

Walking through the doors of The Rosa is like walking through a portal in time. The dining room is decorated in warm shades of brown and beige with comfortable, family-sized banquette seating, high tin ceilings, and the subtle voices of Frank Sinatra and Louis Prima softly playing on the sound system. Look around and you'll see original black-and-white wedding and family portraits of those from other countries who chose to settle in Portsmouth and add to its diversity. And by far the most fun are the framed menus from The Rosa's earliest years, including one featuring a ``1 to 2 pound baked, stuffed lobster and French fries" for 40 cents.

OK, you won't find a meal that inexpensive nowadays, but the homemade quality and hefty portions are still a deal by any standard.

We started our meal with three huge baked stuffed clams ($2 each), which were made extraordinary with a tomato puree sauce on the side.

For entrees, we shared the calamari and native shrimp ($14), chicken picatta ($15), and sausage and peppers ($13) -- all served with choice of pasta and a fresh salad. We went for The Rosa's homemade Italian dressing, which is slightly sweet with a savory sprinkle of celery seeds.

We have never had a bad meal at The Rosa and this was no exception. The shrimp and calamari were sauteed in fragrant, garlic-infused olive oil with fresh basil, tomatoes, shallots, and a light sauce made with lobster stock and lemon juice, all served over homemade linguini.

The fish was cooked to perfection, and the combination of all these fresh flavors was almost too much to take.

The picatta, while a standard dish for an Italian restaurant, was made special with the generous portions of especially tender chicken breast sauteed in olive oil, garlic, fresh shallots and basil, parsley, white wine, and lemon juice, topped with juicy capers over rigatoni.

It wasn't the slightest bit greasy, as many picattas are, and the lemon/caper flavor really came through. A must for true picatta fans.

The sausage dish, served in a delightful marinara, was a surprise in that the homemade sausage, alive with savory spices, was sliced in narrow rounds distributed evenly throughout, rather than large, cumbersome logs. We loved it.

The Rosa is quite family-friendly; it offers a nice children's menu -- $6 for a choice of chicken tenders with steak fries, spaghetti and meatballs, or shells with butter and cheese.

The price includes a drink and a cup of vanilla ice cream. Why even think of a Happy Meal with prices and quality like this?

All we could manage at dessert time was to share one 6-inch-tall (yes, we measured) slice of warm, homemade chocolate cake with frosting ($5.50), which looked like something off of a birthday card and was surprisingly, not cloyingly, sweet -- although, in hindsight, it might have been better with a dollop of fresh whipped cream.

So we're raving so much about ambience and food, we nearly forgot to mention the impeccable service. Because of dietary restrictions, one of us had some unusual requests for our waitress, who not only dealt with them efficiently but with a smile sincere enough that we never felt we were putting her out.

Listen, there's a reason The Rosa has been around for nearly 80 years and will probably be around for 80 more.


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