Article By: Paul Long
Photos By: Josh Triggs
When Carlos and Sonia Romo arrived in Martinsburg 15 years ago, they were just looking for an affordable place to raise their three children while commuting to their jobs near Washington, D.C. Somewhere along the way, though, opportunity knocked, and today, the couple owns and operates La Trattoria, one of the most popular Italian restaurants in the Eastern Panhandle.
La Trattoria was established by the Spinelli family in the mid-1990s and quickly developed a loyal following. The Romos purchased the restaurant in 2007 and are now celebrating their 10th anniversary at the popular eatery.
“It’s been a great experience,” Sonia said recently. “It’s been a great opportunity for our children.”Carlos and Sonia Romo moved to Martinsburg in 2002. They had been residing in the Reston/Herndon, Va., area while working together in the property management business. At the time, Sonia said, they had just one car, so it made sense for them to work together and commute to the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.
Carlos Romo is a native of Mexico, while Sonia came to the United States from Ecuador. Her grandmother, however, was from Italy, and possessed several traditional, homemade Italian recipes that had been handed down through her family from one generation to the next. Many of those recipes, Sonia said, have since been developed into popular dishes at La Trattoria.
When they moved to Martinsburg, the Romos’ children were still in school. Eldest son Juan Pablo was 16 at the time; he is now 31 years old and lives and works in the Bethesda, Md., area. Daughter Sophia was just seven years old in 2002; she is now 22 and pursuing her master’s degree in human resources at West Virginia University. Both Juan Pablo and Sophia worked at La Trattoria for a time but are not currently at the restaurant.
Carlos and Sonia’s middle child, Sebastian, arrived in Martinsburg at the age of 10. He was 14 years old when his parents purchased La Trattoria, and he soon began working at the restaurant as a busboy.
Sebastian gradually worked his way up and now, at age 25, handles much of the cooking and bookkeeping for his parents. His involvement is on a part-time basis for now, since he also sells insurance, but, according to his mother, Sebastian could eventually move into a full-time role. One or more of the Romo children could end up taking over the business when their parents retire – although, Sonia said, that is not on the horizon at the moment.
For Carlos and Sonia, their primary objective since they took over La Trattoria has been to offer high-quality food at reasonable prices. If customer feedback is any indication, they have been successful in that regard; a public survey has rated La Trattoria as the most popular restaurant in Martinsburg for four years running.
La Trattoria’s popularity might be due, at least in part, to how the Romos prepare food for their customers. “The same way I cook for my family, I cook for my guests,” Sonia said.
Sonia describes running the restaurant and maintaining their business as “very intense” and “very challenging.” But, she added, she and her family are very grateful for the support they have received from the Martinsburg community and the surrounding area.
It certainly hasn’t hurt that La Trattoria had 15 years to establish itself on the local restaurant scene for 15 years before the Romo family took over. The restaurant has developed a strong following among its many repeat customers, who hail not just from Berkeley County and the Eastern Panhandle but from Winchester, Va., Hagerstown and Frederick, Md., and Washington, D.C., as well.
On an even larger scale, La Trattoria’s proximity to Interstate 81 – the highway is just a half-mile away – brings in customers from as far away as Boston, New York City and the Carolinas. Sonia Romo said she sees many of the same faces year after year, and some customers tell her they go out of their way to stop in for a meal while traveling to destinations in other states.
The same holds true for customers who stay at the Comfort Inn next door. Some motel guests have said they stay there in order to eat at La Trattoria while they’re in town.
With so many repeat customers, word of mouth has a sort of snowball effect for La Trattoria in terms of bringing in new customers. With glowing recommendations from the travelers who stop in every year as well as those who stay at the motel whenever they’re in the area, the Romos see new faces walking through the door on a regular basis, and soon enough, those people have become repeat visitors as well.
As a result, La Trattoria manages to thrive without having to do a lot of advertising.
“We’re happy with what we’re doing,” said Sonia. “We’re happy we’re growing. We have really good chemistry, and we love what we do.”
With the exception of Sundays, the restaurant is only open for dinner, so the Romos are able to devote time to their business without letting it take over their lives. Sonia estimated that she and her husband typically work between 35 and 40 hours per week.
“It keeps us busy, but not too much,” she said.
Many of the most popular dishes at La Trattoria are served with one of six specially prepared sauces. The blush sauce consists of tomato sauce, chunky tomatoes, garlic, wine and herbs. The marinara sauce is made of chunky tomatoes, garlic, wine and herbs. There’s also an Alfredo sauce, a white wine sauce with garlic and herbs, a smooth tomato sauce and a pink creamy sauce, which is a combination of blush wine and Alfredo sauce. Restaurant patrons can change any sauce on any dinner entrée for an extra charge.
Appetizers include a hummus platter, calamari, mozzarella sticks and zucchini sticks. Salads include Greek, Caesar and chef, with chicken, shrimp and salmon available as add-ons.
All meals are prepared with fresh, wholesome ingredients and come with homemade bread and a choice of salad or soup, all of which is made fresh every day.
House specialties include eggplant Parmesan; sausage with meatballs, blush sauce and mozzarella; and a crab dish with pink sauce. Steak with Risotto and veal piccatta are popular entrees, as is Chicken Siciliana, with crushed red peppers, mushrooms, black olives, white wine, olive oil, garlic and eggplant topped with mozzarella.
La Trattoria also offers more than a dozen chicken, seafood, veal and pasta dishes as well as pizza, side dishes, drinks and a children’s menu. The full menu is available at latrattoriawv.com.
For Sonia Romo, the most rewarding part of having her own restaurant is the interaction with her customers and the feedback they provide.
“Many people give us compliments and ask us for recipes,” she said. “That’s the best part of the job – when people give us compliments and walk away with smiles on their faces.”
There may be plenty of restaurants in and around Martinsburg, but Sonia Romo believes La Trattoria doesn’t have much competition. Few if any locally owned restaurants are doing exactly what they’re doing, and chain restaurants are in a completely different category.
“We are unique,” Sonia said. “No one else has our recipes.”
La Trattoria Is located at 148 Lutz Ave. in Martinsburg. It is open Monday through Saturday from 4 p.m. until 8:30 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 7 p.m. For more information or to make a reservation, call 304-262-6925.