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Romano's Macaroni Grill — North County Fair

202 E. Via Rancho Parkway, Escondido

Unlike Encinitas, the Gaslamp Quarter, and La Mesa, Escondido suffers from a shocking shortage of Italian dinner houses. Judging from the Yellow Pages, there's only tiny Joe's downtown, an Olive Garden way out in the Auto Park, and half the menu at the local Casa Reveles. Then there's Macaroni Grill, a standalone near the entrance of the city's largest mall. Little wonder that Macaroni is one of the town's most popular eateries. In fact, it was a local resident's praise that prompted my visit.

Macaroni turns out to be part of an international chain, stretching from New York to Hawaii to Taiwan to suburban England (only seven U.S. states are still missing a Macaroni). In the San Diego area, there are two locations, in Escondido and Oceanside.

As my partner and I came through the double doors into the foyer, we were greeted by four cheerleaders holding menus. One detached herself from the herd of milling waitstaff to show us to a table. (The group diminished sharply as occupancy rose.) The room is large, divided by low partitions, with Arizona flagstone walls and arched doorways, wall lanterns, and colored bottles on the windowsills for decoration. The open wood-beamed ceiling puts the air-conditioning mechanisms on view. We were seated next to the island bar, where two TVs were tuned to sports channels. In the back, a long open kitchen displays hot-and-cold-running cooks and a large wood-fired oven that's used for baking pizzas, melting cheese toppings, setting glazes, scorching steaks, etc.

There's also an absolute din, and that's the way the patrons like it. It's loudest near the bar, but peaceful nowhere. Italian music ranging from Rosemary Clooney to "Return to Sorrento" to the waltz from "La Traviata" blares through the speakers; the kitchen and the crowds do their noisy parts. The average patron age is about 28, but there were also families with toddlers, drawn by the cheap, 10-item kiddie menu. The feeling is of a community gathering place for daters and young families, with space for large parties, including a private room.

Our waitress was the perky blonde Ashlie. We know how it's spelled because she arrived at the table with Crayolas in lavender and magenta. Using both at once, she wrote her name (with flourishes) on the white butcher-paper tablecloth as she introduced herself. She ground fresh pepper into a saucer and poured Italian extra-virgin olive oil from the table bottle over it. I didn't recognize the brand of oil, but it was flavorful. Then she handed us oversized, multi-paged plastic menus. The wine list, adequate but not exciting, is on the back, and some of the cocktails are listed in the center pages. (The ingredients for the "Italian Margarita" read like any Mexican Margarita, but maybe you're supposed to hear them with a different accent.)

Each table gets a warm loaf of "Tuscan bread," a crusty round with a soft interior spiked with rosemary and caraway seeds. It proved one of the best dishes at the restaurant, an instant crowd pleaser.

We began with an appetizer sampler ($10 for four items, $8 for three). The fried calamari's batter was bland and a little greasy, but the squid was tender. The fried mozzarella in a breadcrumb coating wasn't fully melted and tasted like the same item at Bennigan's, an unrelated chain. I'm sure it's prepared in a central kitchen -- or by a common supplier -- and shipped frozen to all locations. A bruschetta featured bread topped with melted mozzarella and a bit of prosciutto. I wasn't impressed with the quality of the ham or the skim-milk cheese. But the stuffed mushrooms were quite wonderful -- large caps with a layer of spinach covered with decent ricotta, the top half-inch melted and browned in the wood oven. At the center of the sampler plate was a ramekin of spicy, tomatoey marinara to dip or pour at will.

We'd barely made a dent in these appetizers before our entrées arrived. My partner ordered spaghetti and meatballs in meat sauce, a basic test of a place like Macaroni's. To our surprise, some of the spaghetti strands were stuck together from insufficient stirring at the start of cooking. Yes, it happens to all of us sometime, but it's unexpected at an Italian restaurant. The sauce was simple (ground beef and chopped onions in tomato sauce) but meaty, and not half bad -- in fact, my partner liked it. The huge, soft meatballs, lacking flavor and texture, had no discernible herbs or Parmesan. The chain's motto is "All the Italian you need to know," but the meatballs tell me that this translates to, "Italian food for Americans who've never eaten in an Italian neighborhood."

I hit the "from the grill" section of the menu and focused in on the Tuscan Rib-Eye, a bone-in Certified Black Angus -- a full pound of meat, but cut wide and thin. (It was about half as thick as the average Turf Supper Club or Fat City rib-eye.) I ordered it "very rare," and it arrived with the fatty rim rare to medium-rare and the center cooked to cardboardy medium, a result of the cooking technique: The bottom was tan, and lightly cross-hatched from the grill, while the top was darkly cross-hatched and then near-blackened in the wood oven. The steak came with a daub of melted butter and tomato, accompanied by excellent grilled asparagus. The horrible garlic mashed potatoes were puréed in a food processor or MixMaster to the consistency of kindergarten paste. (When a machine breaks down the gluten in the potatoes, you get glue.)

At the table behind us, another perky blonde waitress serenaded a young couple with "Happy Birthday" sung in a Nordic language. She had a good, strong soprano. Meanwhile, Ashlie stopped by whenever our mouths were full (at least five times) to ask if we needed anything more.

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