Thursday, March 23, 2000

Call it macaroni

Posted on Thu, Mar 23, 2000 at 4:00 AM

We were waiting for a table at Romano's Macaroni Grill, and we had plenty of company. Flurries of customers milled around the front door and lined up in groups on the sidewalk outside, prepared for one hour waits. We had chosen to bide our time in the bar, lulled into complacent resignation by Peroni beers and frozen Bellinis. We stifled hunger pangs as we watched a full house chowing on pastas, grilled meats and wood fired pizzas that came from the bustling exhibition kitchen.

And then something happened that really got our attention. Five tables opened up right in the middle of the restaurant. Then they stayed open -- for five minutes, then 10. It was excruciating to watch them go unclaimed in the middle of a restaurant where people were clamoring to be seated. When our mobile "Macaroni" beeper never signaled us, we went back to the hostess to ask if anyone was going to be seated at the empty tables. But she told us our turn would come soon, and directed us back to the bar.

When a restaurant can flubs the seating arrangements like that and still remain so filled with customers, it's obviously doing something right. And Romano's Macaroni Grill is the kind of Italian restaurant that lots of people like. It's noisy, fun, fast-paced and filled with lavish Italian food at neighborhood prices. The setting is spacious, rustic and casual with stone walls, lights strung overhead, fresh flowers all around, waiters who occasionally belt out "Happy Birthday" serenades in Italian, and wine that flows. Jugs of house wine are on the honor system at $3.29 a glass. Bread is limitless too, and it's always hot, crusty, and plentiful, served with a dipping plate of olive oil, shredded parmesan and pepper.

The kitchen doesn't stint on portions, either. "Fonduta Gamberi" ($6.99) is just what the name suggests in Italian: A ravishing fondue of shrimp, artichoke hearts and spinach, roasted into a melted mess with Parmesan and mozzarella cheeses. It's appetizer heaven with a heap of garlic toast wedges.

"Pizza di Pollo Barbacoda" is another winning choice: A wood-fired pizza on a thin, chewy crust with vigorous toppings of barbecued chicken, pecorino and mozzarella cheese ($7.49). It manages to be light and filling at the same time.

"Scaloppine di Salmone" salmon fillet ($12.99) is a winning entree that leaves a citrus impression, sauteed with fresh lemon butter. It's adorned with capers, tomatoes and fresh bright basil. But on the night we visited, the accompanying bowl of linguine had no flair whatsoever. It looked and tasted like someone had dumped it out of a pot to get it out to the table in a hurry. And the "Ravioli Formaggi" only hinted at the asiago, parmesan cheeses that were stuffed into the pasta, because the roasted garlic cream sauce had been drenched with a heart-stopping dose of salt.

Popularity notwithstanding, Romano's Macaroni Grill doesn't belong in the big leagues of Italian restaurants. It's so busy being sought after that when customers start flooding in, the kitchen stops sweating the details. Best to try this restaurant when it's not quite so busy, and the heady flavors of Tuscany are more dependable. In the meantime, if you're looking for ultimate Italian breads and grilled Tuscan meats, your search has ended.

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