Threading Pride Through a Pandemic at Roma’s Ristorante Italiano

Above: Roma’s owner Matt Leum and Sister Roma of Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence

Matt Leum closed escrow on Roma’s Ristorante Italiano March 15, the day before San Francisco restaurants shut down. After a five-month delay and a significant change of plans, Roma’s Ristorante is currently running as a gourmet Italian grocery store and restaurant, available for takeout or delivery. Matt reflects that “having a brand-new restaurant that I was not allowed to open was one of the scariest feelings I’ve ever had.” Ineligible for government assistance and having no outdoor seating fueled Matt to find another way.

He quickly realized that “If I wanted to be open, I had to be an essential business. Not having any sort of reputation to rely on, I had to do something unique. It was the first thought I had.” Three weeks after his epiphany, Roma’s Ristorante Italiano landed in the SOMA district with nothing but pride and gratitude. In addition to Matt’s humble three-person staff, he thanks his “tribe” for their collective efforts with the opening.

“I could achieve this quick ‘pivot’ only due to the help of my closest friends…one of them took the reigns of my social media campaign, another volunteered to be my wine director, one managed the rollout of the grocery including purchasing and product placement…to get us ready to open on August 1st. It literally took a village and I couldn’t be more grateful,” Matt proclaims.

With all hands on deck from the get-go, Matt continues building community relationships to circulate the news about Roma’s.

Roma’s Rich History

Though Roma’s is new in town, it’s the product of rich history. As a native to California, Matt spent 20 years in San Francisco in the ‘80s and ’90s. It wasn’t until his 11 years living in Paris, however, that his life changed directions for the better. 

During that time, he claims two things happened. The first is that “I fell in love with the hospitality industry from the customer side. I learned to appreciate how a restaurant works…how a team works together.” The second revelation was that “Italy was my go-to playground. I love the people, love the food, love the culture…I had a place in my heart for Italian culture.”

It’s been quite the transition from Matt’s former technical recruiting profession. After leaving that job, he managed Poesia Osteria Italiano in the Castro District. When the owner wanted to sell, he even offered it to Matt. Now with his own storefront, Matt’s affirmed by the fact that “It’s always been Italian for me.” 

Roma’s gourmet Italian grocery store.

Already, Matt claims, “People are raving. [We have] five stars on Yelp…people call the restaurant back just to say how much they like the food.” Roma’s Ristorante Italiano goes to show that even amongst crazy times, there’s always a method to the madness.

The Reason for Roma’s

Beyond Matt’s passion for Italian food and culture, he explains the LGBTQ+ thread. Sister Roma—of San Fran’s hottest queer movement, Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence—inspired the name. As “one of the top gay icons in San Francisco,” Matt’s best friend of 34 years belonged in his new venture. Matt says he knew Roma before she was a Sister. Instinctively, he called her up to ask, “Would you mind if I name the restaurant after you?” It’s obvious Matt’s intuition’s led him from the start.

Matt and Sister Roma.

Matt shares a new and creative strategy as he continues navigating these times. “We’ve got the entire LGBTQ+ community behind us. We do personal dinner deliveries in full drag. People had to reserve hourly slots to do it…” What was once their slowest night became their busiest. Matt reports, “We’re becoming a nice, new focal point for the community.”

The queer-friendly environment prioritizes community and inclusivity. The in-house ambiance consists of art for sale from local artists. Matt iterates, “This is just a nice, fun place to come and be safe. No judgment. We’re just a melting pot of community.” With open doors and pride flags abound, Roma’s welcomes everyone.

Ramping Up 

Besides the safe space that is Roma’s Ristorante Italiano, Matt shares that it’s the only Italian grocery in the south market. That said, he honestly notes, “It’s a shame that everybody’s learning the food without the experience,” since the hope was to have dine-in service too. “It’s difficult to imagine what people are thinking when they sit and plate the food up themselves without us explaining it to them.”

Still, Matt’s spirits are high as he recognizes an advantage to opening during the pandemic. “…This being my first ever restaurant, I’m lucky I’m not carrying around the baggage of how things used to be. This is just it. This is how I do it,” he names. 

When it comes to food quality, Italian cuisine trained chef, Daniel Kuuk, emphasizes the importance of farm-to-table and supporting local farmers – especially now. Daniel proclaims that “with the way things are going, we in the industry…need to understand where we get our produce…I know how much work and how much love [these farmers] put into the crop.”

 

Chef Daniel sources fresh and local ingredients for his creations, like the Seafood Risotto.

As a result, Roma’s menu depends on seasonal availability. Daniel intends to keep building relationships with local farmers and attending farmers markets for an ever-changing menu of the highest caliber.

When asked what Matt hopes people feel from Roma’s food, he claims comfort as the ultimate goal. Despite the learning curve of these times, there’s no doubt Roma’s is nourishing people even beyond physical hunger. Support Roma’s Ristorante Italiano to discover how its food, people, and energy can lift your spirits!

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