600 Washington St.
Entering Pompilios Italian Restaurant is like stepping back in time: the restaurant, celebrating 75 years in the same Newport location, still retains a lot of Depression-era charm and character. From the tiled floors and diner-style tables and chairs, to the barroom with its gorgeous, hand-carved back bar – built of cherry wood by the George Wiedemann Brewing Company in 1886 – you get a real sense of history everywhere you look.
And there’s a lot to look at. If you enjoy people-watching you won’t be disappointed, because Pompilios is bustling seven nights a week. If you are waiting for a table, be sure to check out the hallway between the dining room and bar, where you will see photos taken during the week that scenes from Academy Award winning film Rain Man were being shot in the restaurant. Remember the famous “toothpick scene” where Dustin Hoffman’s character knows exactly how many toothpicks spill out onto the floor of a restaurant? That’s Pompilios, and they have the box of toothpicks on display, along with autographs of the cast and crew. The restaurant was also used during the making of the 1993 movie Airborne, starring (a then-unknown) Jack Black.
In addition to their cinema celebrity, Pompilios also has the distinction of being the first Kentucky establishment to obtain a liquor license after the repeal of prohibition. It is their delicious, home-made Italian specialties, however, that garner the highest accolades and guarantee repeat visits.
Vegetarians are well catered to at Pompilios. They offer six vegetarian appetizers – including absolutely spectacular Toasted Ravoli, homemade cheese ravioli that’s lightly breaded and deep-fried. Go ahead and throw the diet out the window because you’ll want more. They also offer Eggplant Parmigiana as a starter, and a deliciously fresh Mozzarella a la Caprese (mozzarella, tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil with fresh basil and capers). I could make a meal of just starters and be happy, but that would mean forgoing their outstanding entrées.
Their vegetarian marinara sauce is made with the freshest ingredients and tastes divine. You can get it on your choice of seven types of pasta; on cheese-filled tortellini, four-cheese manicotti, or their Half & Half: cheese ravioli served with spaghetti.
Pompilios also offers several vegetarian specialties including Vegetarian Ronaldo (black olives, sun-dried tomatoes and garlic sautéed in olive oil and tossed with angel hair pasta and feta cheese), Rigatoni with Fra Diavolo (spicy alfredo sauce tossed with rigatoni pasta) or my personal favorite, Bow-Tie Putenesca (tangy sauce of plum tomatoes, olives, garlic and peppers tossed with bow-tie pasta). Some putenesca sauces sport chopped anchovies - but not here, making it a good choice for vegans on the lookout for something a little different. It’s got a nice kick to it, so if you aren’t a fan of spicy foods you may want to avoid it.
The restaurant has also received plenty of honors at Taste of Cincinnati, and three of their award-winning entrées are vegetarian: Linguini Primavera (sautéed garden veggies in a garlic cream sauce, served over linguini), Eggplant Parmigiana (layers of breaded eggplant baked in tomato sauce and layered with parmesan and provolone cheeses, served with rigatoni) and Three-Cheese Tortellini (cheese-filled tortellini and garlic-roasted vegetables in a three-cheese cream sauce). All specialties come with a cup of soup or a tossed salad. I’d opt for the salad, as I don’t believe their homemade Italian dressing can be beat. For something that looks so delicate, it’s absolutely bursting with tangy flavor. My mouth waters just thinking about it.
Although the service at the restaurant is very efficient, many of the staff have worked at the restaurant a long time and can come across as aloof. We jokingly tell friends that “at Pompilios, you get service with a snarl.” Not entirely true, but not entirely false either - it just depends on the luck of the draw. There are a few Lunchlady Doris’s there that frown upon indecisiveness and waffling. You’ve been warned.
When the weather warms, request to be seated on their patio, which a lot of people don’t seem to know exists. I’ve had friendly arguments with friends (and long-time customers) who insist that Pompilios doesn’t have alfresco dining. These same folks are astonished to learn that not only is there a patio with a small bar, there are also Bocce courts, where leagues play Monday to Thursday from May to October. Pompilios is full of surprises like that.