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Romano’s Macaroni Grill

May 9, 2012

I first experienced Romano’s Macaroni Grill about a dozen years ago while I was still in college.  In the years since, the restaurant has really changed.  The first time I walked into a Macaroni Grill, I saw it as this very elegant, very upscale Italian restaurant.  The restaurant was expansive and packed with people.  The decor inside seemed very subtly elegant to me.  The windows were covered with heavy dark-colored velvet drapes, every employee was dressed in crispy white shirts and dark slacks, there was an opera singer hired that would walk from table to table singing classical Italian operettas.  I was kind of blown away by the elegance of the restaurant.  These days, in an effort to win customers in a tough restaurant business, and with the economy struggling and customers having a hard time affording to eat out, the restaurant has switched itself to being a more wallet-friendly casual Italian restaurant, perhaps just a step above Olive Garden.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just something I’ve noticed through the years.

According to its website, Macaroni Grill blends “20 years of tradition with innovative Italian cooking”.  They play on the theme of blending old world traditions with innovative new styles, a mix of the new and the classic to bring together their menu of favorites.  Their philosophy is based upon using fresh pastas and regional ingredients to create classic Italian flavors that pair together well with the extensive selection of wines.  Some of the ingredients that they highlight include bronze-cut pasta from Italy, cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil from Italy and barrel aged 8-year balsamic among others.

I’d say that about 8 years ago, a Romano’s Macaroni Grill location opened up only several miles away from where I live.  I think my family and friends were excited at the time because it was a brand new eatery coming to a town where eateries in general where pretty limited.  I remember many occasions where my friends and I would meet up at Macaroni Grill for get together meals or meals to celebrate special occasions.  My parents and I would occasionally dine at Macaroni Grill from time to time as well.  When my husband moved out to the area, we would go to Macaroni Grill as well for meals when we didn’t feel like cooking at home, but wanted some good Italian food.  Though even during this time, their menu selection and just the general feel of the restaurant has changed so much that we hardly go anymore.  It feel like every time I step into Macaroni Grill it’s different from the previous time I was there.  Menu options are different, the food is different and the ambiance is different.  It’s sometimes hard to keep up with it, or know what to expect when I dine there.

The last time we were at Macaroni Grill, my husband started off his meal by ordering pomegranate lemonade.  This is a bit of a different twist on the classic lemonade that you see, or even strawberry lemonade that you may get at different restaurants.  Unfortunately, while the drink was different, it fell a bit flat.  The pomegranate was a bit tart and not really sweet.  The lemonade did not taste like it was fresh-squeezed or homemade, which was a bit disappointing.  When everything is made from syrups and just isn’t fresh, you can really taste the difference in quality.

One of our favorite things about Macaroni Grill is the loaf of rosemary olive oil bread that they bring out to everyone’s table.  Warm and fresh out of the oven, served alongside a dipping plate of extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar and just a little bit of fresh cracked black pepper, the rosemary olive oil bread is perfect.  It’s full of flavor with the olive oil, and just a little hint of the woodsy rosemary.  The outside of the loaf is nice and crusty and crunchy, and the inside is soft and airy and doughy.  It’s the perfect start to a meal.

My husband and I will general order an appetizer with our meal.  It seems whenever we go to Macaroni Grill we end up ordering different appetizers each time.  I guess we just like trying new dishes.  We’ve had the crab stuffed mushrooms, which were fantastic, other than the fact that I don’t like mushrooms.  So, I end up eating the crab stuffing and giving the mushrooms to my husband.  We’ve also ordered the calamari fritti before.  It is served with an arrabiata dip that matches well with the calamari.  The spiciness of the arrabbiata dip with the red pepper flakes you can actually see has the right mixture of spice and acidity to pair well the appetizer.  Squeeze the lemon wedge over the dish and it’s a terrific appetizer.  On this particular visit to Macaroni Grill, we ordered the crispy fresh mozzarella which comes with a side of arrabbiata dip and lemon pesto.  Like the calamari, the arrabbiata dip is the perfect pairing to the crispy fried breading on the crispy fresh mozzarella.  It’s cooked perfectly so that the mozzarella is melted and stringy when you bite into it.  And the lemon pesto on the side is a nice refreshing surprise.

I generally also order a caesar salad as a side to my entrée.  Their side salads are a perfect size to start the meal off with.  The bowls come out to the table cold, straight from the refrigerator.  The romaine lettuce is crisp and they give you plenty of caesar dressing.  Top the salad off with shredded parmesan and crispy croutons, along with the addition of fresh cracked black pepper.  It’s one of the better starter salads that I’ve found at restaurants.

As is the case most times I go to Macaroni Grill, I ordered a create-your-own-pasta meal.  Basically, you are given a sheet of paper to fill out.  You can choose everything from your own type of pasta; angel hair, spaghetti, fettucine, penne, etc..  Then choose your sauce; spicy arrabbiata, bolognese, alfredo, etc.  You can add a variety of protein; including meatballs and grilled chicken.  And then you are given an a list of additional ingredients to choose from; where you can add up to 3 items, anything from broccoli, to roasted garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms and more.  I generally get penne pasta with bolognese, with the addition of broccoli, roasted garlic and spinach.  The dish is brought out to the table in a big bowl.  The server will then add fresh grated parmesan if you choose.  It’s always too much for me to finish, so I generally end up eating half of it and taking half of it home for leftovers for another meal.  The dish itself is pretty good.  Certainly not the best pasta I’ve ever had, but it’s decent.  I tend to think that they don’t bring their pasta dishes out hot enough.  I’m not sure if this is because the dish is made in advance and then sits there while other dishes are made and then everything is brought out at once, so then by the time the dish gets to me it’s not hot anymore.  Or perhaps that’s just the way meals at Macaroni Grill are made that they decide not to bring food out piping hot and risk a customer complaining that it was too hot and burned their mouth.  I also think, at times, that the dish doesn’t come with enough meat sauce so it ends up being a little dry, but that may be more of a personal preference than anything else.

My husband ordered a dish that he often gets when we go out for any sort of Italian food; fettucine alfredo.  Like many people, he loves the fettucine noodles with the creamy alfredo sauce.  He also had grilled chicken added to his dish (though I guess it’s hard to see in this picture).  It’s hard to find fettucine alfredo that my husband won’t like.  Add cream, and cheese and he’s a happy camper.

Macaroni Grill is not a place my husband and I find ourselves at a lot.  But sometimes, you just get bored with going to the same places over and over again, or you don’t feel like going and trying something new, so you go to a place that’s an old standby and a known commodity.  That’s what Macaroni Grill is for us – it’s a known commodity.  Not the best food in the world, but almost like Italian comfort food, you know exactly how it will be and what it will taste like and sometimes that’s good enough.

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