Crust and community: Why Roma is more than a pizzeria

It’s not just the pizza that’s seasoned; Roma has been serving Vandy’s best late-night food for over 20 years.

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Keng Teghen

The Roma team of brothers, cousins and family friends pictured left to right on Oct. 26, 2022: Mojhed, Jaafar, Saif, Tim, Majed, Hamza, Hantouli. (Hustler Multimedia/Keng Teghen)

By Elise Harris, Vanderbilt University

Nowhere other than Roma Pizza & Pasta can you indulge in a 3 a.m. Pepperoni Suicide, handmade by an 18-year-old Palestinian entrepreneur who doubles as an honorary member of Vanderbilt’s Beta Pi chapter of Alpha Tau Omega Fraternity. For over 20 years, Roma has been serving the Vanderbilt community, and it’s high time to meet the people behind the pizza.

If you’ve ever entered Roma Pizza late at night, chances are you’ve played the “age game” with Jaafar Hantouli, where you guess his age and likely fail miserably by adding 10 or more years. Rather than letting this response be a continual hit to his youthful dignity, Jaafar uses it as a way to connect with Vanderbilt students.

“I’ve got the facial hair and everything like that. I know I don’t look my age. So why not have this fun game?” Jaafar said. “I feel like that’s what started the connection with Vandy. That game is the thing that got me talking to Vandy students and everything.”

For as long as he can remember, Jaafar has been in the pizza business. Even as a small child, he said he enjoyed spending time with his dad Munir at their Roma locations, completing small tasks like washing dishes. At age 16, he officially began working at Roma. Now, at just 18 years old, Jaafar is the man in charge at the Vanderbilt Roma, but his dad still owns the company. He believes the closeness in age between many of his customers and himself makes Roma the welcoming place it is.

“We kick it off because we’re kind of the same age,” Jaafar said. “We’ve grown up in the same era, we’ve had similar experiences, I feel like we have a connection. It’s like friends. I don’t feel like there’s an employee-customer vibe between us.”

Jaafar and his younger brother Hantouli have formed dozens of friendships from the simple “age game.” But one group of students has a special place in their hearts: Vanderbilt’s Beta Pi chapter of Alpha Tau Omega fraternity. Jaafar thanks ATO for his most memorable night at Roma.

“It was my birthday, May 3,” Jaafar said. “I was taking deliveries, and I came back to the store, and there were a ton of people outside the store. It was the ATO frat. They brought me a cake, a shirt and everything like that. That was the best memory; it was that day. That was a heartfelt moment.”

Jaafar Hantouli attends an Alpha Tau Omega day party with president Ben Hayden. (Photo courtesy of Ben Hayden)
Jaafar Hantouli attends an Alpha Tau Omega day party with president Ben Hayden. (Photo courtesy of Ben Hayden)

ATO members mutually enjoyed the event as well, including the fraternity’s President Ben Hayden, a junior. He said nearly 20 ATO brothers went to Roma that night for Jaafar’s birthday.

“When we found out Jaafar’s 18th birthday was coming up, we knew we had to do something special,” Hayden said. “He told us he was working the whole night, so we decided to bring him a cake and some gifts right at midnight. We baked the cake and brought an ATO shirt to really make him feel like part of our brotherhood. He even told us he wore the shirt back home in Palestine over the summer! If anyone is an honorary ATO, it’s Jaafar.”

There are pizza spots on almost every corner of Nashville, but Hayden said the community feel of Roma is unmatched. He explained that Jaafar has become a good friend to many ATO brothers.

“Roma is special to us because of the people, community and vibes,” Hayden said. “We usually sit down and talk with [Jaafar] about how life’s going and he’s always interested in how we’re doing. He even gave one brother a Roma apron in a ‘jersey swap’ for another ATO shirt. There’s nothing better at the end of a long night than debriefing with Jaafar and begging him to let us make a pizza.”

Munir Hantouli immigrated from Palestine to the U.S. in 1995 seeking better living conditions and financial opportunities for his future family. No stranger to the food industry, Munir had sold Arabic biscuits and tea out of his dad’s garage back in Palestine. Once arriving in the U.S., he first lived in Texas with family friends while working at an Arabic bread bakery making $3 an hour. For years, he didn’t spend any of his earnings, and eventually, he saved enough money to relocate to Nashville in 1999. His wife, Hanna, immigrated from Palestine to join him in 2003, and the couple welcomed four children in their new home: Jaafar (18), Hantouli (16), Maha (14) and Jacob (10).

The first Roma location opened in 1999 on Jefferson St. in North Nashville, and in 2002, the Hantouli family brought Roma to Vanderbilt, opening their most popular spot on Elliston Place. Twenty years later and now one of 15 locations, the Vanderbilt Roma remains the “hub,” drawing in the most business due to its prime location near the university. In addition, the Hantouli family has also previously owned a hookah bar in Nashville, currently owns a junkyard in National City and is opening a gyro and Arabic food store next door to the Vanderbilt Roma.

Jaafar—often working alongside his brother Hantouli—is no stranger to long hours and 7-day work weeks. He has selflessly sacrificed much of his personal and social life to work at Roma.

“My dad gave me the choice,” Jaafar said. “‘You want to go to college? I’ll get you to any college you want to go to.’ I chose the store. I’d rather start working for my own from the beginning.”

In June 2022, Jaafar graduated from John Overton High School in Brentwood, Tennessee, where his brother Hantouli now attends. But with only a few cousins here in Nashville, Munir and Hanna decided to return to Palestine in the summer of 2022, allowing Maha and Jacob to finish high school there while being around more cousins. Even with most of their family living in Palestine, cousins and family friends pour hours into helping out at the Vanderbilt Roma, perfecting our lunch break and midnight meals. 

Jaafar Hantouli prepares a pizza at Roma Pizza & Pasta, as photographed on Oct. 26, 2022. (Hustler Multimedia/Keng Teghen)
Jaafar Hantouli prepares a pizza at Roma Pizza & Pasta, as photographed on Oct. 26, 2022. (Hustler Multimedia/Keng Teghen)

Jaafar enjoys spending time with these nearby relatives in his few hours of free time. He especially misses his mom’s homemade meals, so sharing his Nashville aunt’s maqluba (-مقلوبه) with his cousins makes him feel closer to his mom. Though he has little time to enjoy family before it’s time for him to head back to work, you’ll never find Jaafar complaining.

“Sometimes you’ve got to make sacrifices when you’re young, so when you’re older, you can have freedom,” Jaafar said. “I’d rather work while I still have my health—work as much as I can and build as much as I can. I don’t want to be rich, I want to be wealthy.”

Jaafar’s ultimate goal is to continue his dad’s legacy by making Roma a household name with locations all across the country. Munir has also given opportunities to many immigrants by helping them become owners of new Roma locations, and Jaafar hopes to expand this practice. 

“When you’re growing up, you see your dad going to work every day; he’s providing. You see he’s tired,” Jaafar said. “To be honest, the main reason why I came to take control of the store is to give my dad a break. He’s been working his whole life; he’s 50 right now, so he needs a break. I’d rather him be with my mom and siblings more often.”

Jaafar’s plan is to be hands-on for a few more years at the Vanderbilt location, then take on more of an overseeing role. In his future free time, he hopes to start attending Vanderbilt games and events finally.

Jaafar is also ensuring Roma stays true to its roots. The menu has remained untouched since 1999, and his top two recommendations are the Supreme and Pepperoni Suicide. Ironically, as a practicing Muslim, Jaafar hasn’t actually tried either of those menu items due to them containing pork, but he knows they are customer favorites. He’s also keeping Roma up-to-date with the young college community it serves and he has plans to make an Instagram page for the restaurant.

Even after Jaafar throws in the apron, the Vandy-Roma bond will continue on. Available with our Commodore Meal Money and just a short walk from campus, Roma continues to be the perfect spot to get rid of that pre-game or post-lab hunger. After you’ve taken your last final and you’re on your last Roma run of the school year, be sure to wish Jaafar a happy birthday on May 3.

This story was originally published on The Vanderbilt Hustler on November 17, 2022.