’Nod to nostalgia’: Rosa Restaurant reopening for third time

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’Nod to nostalgia’: Rosa Restaurant reopening for third time

PORTSMOUTH — The third time’s the charm, they say, and in the case of the Rosa Restaurant, the third time will be a return to the beginning.

Set for a grand reopening this weekend, the historic Italian restaurant on State Street – once thought to be the longest, continuously run restaurant under a family name in New England – will see its third rebirth, at its same location, under a new restaurant holding company named River Wharf LLC.

It will be a “constant nod to nostalgia,” said sales and marketing director Jennifer Parker, bringing back the classic, beloved Rosa menu and comfortable atmosphere from its inception in 1927.

“It has to be the locals’ place,” said operations director Michelle Matthews. “It has to be what it was.”

The classic Rosa pint glasses will return, and for sale will be replica T-shirts once worn by the Rosa’s “spaghetti squadron” 1980s softball team. Staff put out a web poll to patrons asking what dishes they’d like to see return to the menu, and the selections reflect just that – including the original homemade Italian dressing and white pizza.

On the wall by the warm, dark wood bar hangs a framed photograph of “Marge,” a waitress employed there for more than 60 years who was iconic to the locals. In the entryway are photos of the Rosa and Hunt families, the ones who started it all.

Ralph Rosa opened the restaurant in 1927 after being laid off from Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Starting in 1981, Joe Hunt and his wife Pamela Hunt owned and operated the restaurant for 40 years. The Rosa closed for the first time in 2012 after 85 years in business.

In 2013, the restaurant reopened under the ownership of Mark McNabb and Joe Barone – also of the Martingale Wharf on Bow Street. The Rosa closed again in April 2018, and the space reopened months later as a new restaurant called Armando’s – operated by a Florida-based restaurateur who had developed an affinity for Portsmouth during visits over the years.

Armando’s closed in March – when the state mandated business closures as a result of COVID-19 – and never reopened.

River Wharf LLC includes the Rosa, Martingale Wharf and soon-to-be Sol, scheduled to open in early 2021 in the former Agave location on State Street.

At the helm of the Rosa kitchen is head chef Dresden Lewis, who is originally from Austin, Texas, but has spent the last several years in New Hampshire. She went to school to become a pastry chef, and is fascinated by food traditions and cultures, she said.

Prior to becoming head chef at the Rosa, she was bakery manager for both Lil’s Cafe in Kittery and White Heron Tea and Coffee in Portsmouth.

“Italian food is one of those things I’ve always been so enthusiastic about,” Lewis said. “And I’m challenged with this, because it’s a brand, it’s a name. The building inspector was in here the other day talking about his Rosa experience.”

Lewis described the menu as “like the original Rosa menu, the Rosa that made the Rosa what it is.”

There is pork osso buco, a one-pound braised pork shank with mushrooms, tomatoes, cipollini onions, a Madeira beef broth and mashed potato. The chicken cannelloni features stuffed pasta filled with braised chicken, caramelized onion, sundried tomatoes, spinach, ricotta cheese blend and herbs, topped with a roasted red pepper cream sauce.

Piccatta – with capers, garlic, shallots, mushrooms, lemon, white wine, herbs and a choice of pasta – can be ordered with chicken, veal or haddock.

“This is no spoonful of slop that goes into a saucepan,” Lewis said. “Every pasta is built from the ground up.”

There’s creamy fettuccine Alfredo, classic spaghetti and meatballs, pesto primavera pizza and a loaded antipasto.

Lewis added, “Is there anything more comfortable than carbohydrates?”

Lewis is particularly excited about the dessert menu, given her background. She noted the tiramisu as a star of the show – a classic layered cake of lady fingers soaked in coffee and Madeira with layers of sweetened whipped mascarpone dusted with cocoa and powdered sugar.

House wines are available on tap, and there’s a new cocktail menu.

This rebirth of the Rosa is “going back to what Portsmouth people want,” said Parker. “Affordable, classic Italian.”

Parker and Matthews noted there will be several familiar faces behind the bar and in the kitchen, as many former employees returned to bring the revered restaurant back to life.

The Rosa’s grand reopening is this weekend, and the restaurant is taking reservations for lunch and dinner.