LOWELL -- There isn't anything Richard Rourke doesn't love about Italy.
In the last 14 years he's visited the European country regularly; he loves the people, architecture, food, and above all -- the wine.
"I think I'm a wannabe Italian," Rourke said.
When Rourke, having worked in many aspects of the restaurant business, decided to open an eatery to leave a legacy for his youngest son Colin, who was studying at culinary school, he opted to serve the most consumed ethnic food in America.
"I said if I ever had an opportunity to open a restaurant it would be Italian," Rourke said. Rourke opened Ricardo's Café Trattoria on Gorham Street in December 1998 and attributes the 75-seat high-end Italian café's longevity in the Mill City to the quality of food offered and the high level of service.
Ricardo's, he said, draws a regular clientele that often dines at the eatery twice a week. His regulars are part of the reason for the restaurant's extensive specials menu. Seven specials -- soup, salad, appetizer, pasta, seafood, and two entrees -- are offered daily.
Colin Rourke tries to cover all regions of Italy for his menu and nightly specials but the focus tends to lean toward northern Italian cuisine. His red sauce is prepared pomodoro-style -- light, with fresh tomato, basil and olive oil, always cooked to order.
"What makes quality authentic Italian food is good ingredients," said the elder Rourke. "All of our sauces and soups are made from scratch -- we don't scrimp."
Hints of Italy are subtly tucked into some menu mainstays at Ricardo's. The onion soup, topped with gruyere and fresh mozzarella, is prepared with a Chianti reduction and Ciopollini onions, which are indigenous to Piemonte region of Italy.
Colin Rourke also created an Italian-inspired version of Hawaiian pizza, swapping out ham for prosciutto and fresh garlic. All pizza crusts at Ricardo's are grilled at a high temperature to caramelize the dough.
Richard Rourke praised his son's ability for seeking out the best seafood in Boston daily for the restaurant's regular and special seafood items and in the summer, its famed fried clams.
"He checks the gills, he looks in their eyes," he said.
And while a roundtrip to Boston before opening the restaurant can sometimes be a haul, Colin Rourke wouldn't have it any other way.
"It's harder to do but I feel more connected to the food," he said.
Ricardo's Café Trattoria
110 Gorham St., Lowell, 978-453-2777, ricardoscafetrattoria.com
- Hours: The kitchen is open Tues.-Sat., 5-10 p.m. The bar/lounge can stay open as late as 2 a.m. and the restaurant hosts live jazz on Fridays, 7:30-11:30 p.m.
- Reservations: Accepted
- Parking: Street parking only
- Atmosphere: Comfortable, classy and welcoming. "It has the feeling of Cheers," Rourke said.
- Menu: Traditional Italian and Italian-inspired dishes
- Price Range: Entrees $16.95-$29.95
- Cocktails and Wine: The bar at Ricardo's is lined with 354 different liquors and there is no official cocktail list because Rourke said there is no cocktail his bar staff can't make. Rourke, who also owns Tutto Bene in Lowell, has crafted an extensive wine list lined with mainly Italian selections. He serves as somewhat of a sommelier at the restaurant and educates his customers on the selections he suggests.
- Try This: Juniper Pork Chop (rubbed with fresh garlic, rosemary and juniper berries, topped with rosemary demi-glace and served with buttermilk mashed potatoes and broccolini), Smoked Mozzarella & Spinach Stuffed Chicken, Fried Calamari (also served buffalo-style), and Fried Clams.