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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.

Finally, we took her up on the offer and asked about desserts. She recited the list. Ashlie's favorite was one of two desserts made in-house, "Chocolate Ravioli," filled with several types of chopped-up chocolate bars (she mentioned Snickers) and baked to melt into goo. The other house-made dessert is called "Strawberry Zabaglione." It's not a true zabaglione, whipped up with egg and Marsala, but merely fruit served with whipped cream -- or something like it. We went for a "Caffe Latte Cheesecake," a slab of coffee-flavored cheesecake on a dark-chocolate crust plated atop a dark-chocolate sauce similar to Smucker's. A bit of aerosol whipped cream had a faint metallic taste. "I hate the flavor but like the texture," said my partner. "I like the flavor, hate the texture," I told him, feeling oppressed by its glutinous weight.

Next day, we decided to check out a feature called "Curbside To Go." It works like do-it-yourself Waiter On Wheels. You call in your order 30 minutes ahead and go to pick it up, using one of the parking spots designated for the function. They bring the food out to you, with almost no waiting, then you pay and take it home (or gobble it in some other part of the parking lot if you're starving.) It's the food equivalent of Netflix DVD rentals, replacing the social experience of restaurant eating with a private meal, while replacing the experience of a home-cooked meal with a mass-produced hot dinner. Like the cell phone, it's a development that allows people to absent themselves from the outer world. But in this case, it also allows you to have a meal without having to hear a reprise of "Return to Sorrento."

We noticed that the takeout menu had a number of items marked with a little red chef's toque, meaning, "Chef's Choice" -- specialties of the house. Most of these looked more creative than the non-toqued choices. We tried a couple of them. The lobster ravioli had deep-green tarragon-flavored pasta filled with lobster meat, topped with shrimp, chopped asparagus, diced fresh tomatoes, and lemon butter. The pasta is on the thick side, but less so than the average San Diego raviolum. The overall effect is likable, with tender shrimp and coherent flavors. Another possibility in this vein is Shrimp Portofino, with shrimp, mushrooms, pine nuts, and spinach in lemon-butter sauce, served with pasta.

Our other choice was a sampler called "Mama's Trio," featuring chicken cannelloni, lasagna, and chicken Parmigiano. The chicken Parmigiano tasted like it came frozen and ready to heat from a central commissary. The "twice baked" lasagna wasn't bad. It also wasn't good, since it follows the same pattern as the meatballs, more Red State all-American than Italian-American. The cannelloni, putatively filled with roast chicken, plus spinach and cheese, mainly contained melted cheese. I did like its tangy Asiago cream sauce.

Romano's isn't great, but it's serviceable for the demographic it's aimed toward. Ten years from now, today's 28-year-olds will still be eating there, saying "Remember our first date?" and "Remember Tammee's third birthday party?" Long-running, wide-reaching restaurant chains aren't born, they're created -- by their devoted patrons, and by the people who've read those patrons' wants and needs.

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