A taste of Italy, with nachos on the side Restaurant: At Romano's Macaroni Grill, you can expect a decent -- or better than decent -- meal at a reasonable price.

October 26, 1997|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

Visit the new Romano's Macaroni Grill and you'll feel as if a little bit of Italy has come to Timonium. Well, almost. Having a Bob Evans next door is a problem. And I'm not sure how authentic it is to have "Volare" playing at top volume in the dining room. (Don't get me wrong. I love "Volare." What's not to love?) And nachos -- do they serve those in Italy? OK, maybe they do. But made with fried won tons?

As Chili's is to Southwestern, so Macaroni Grill is to Italian. (Chili's is another "concept" restaurant in parent company Brinker International's portfolio.) As at Chili's, if you don't mind the crowds and the noise at the Macaroni Grill -- it's a zoo -- you can get a decent meal at a reasonable price, and sometimes more than decent. The perfect example is the house salad, 99 cents extra with an entree. For that you get fresh green romaine, croutons, grated Parmesan and a tangy Caesar dressing or balsamic vinaigrette -- not the usual brown-edged iceberg, white onions and cardboard tomatoes.

The new restaurant is one huge room with exposed stone walls, cement floor and open kitchen. You're probably beginning to understand just how noisy it can be. But some of it is quite nice: the strings of lights, the white linen tablecloths, the striking arrangements of white gladioli. The tablecloths are covered with white paper, and each table has crayons on it. I was a little taken aback when the waitress wrote her name in block capitals on our table. But one of my guests, an artist, got into the spirit of the thing and drew some beautiful eggplants and tomatoes while we waited. I decided I liked the crayons.

You can get a jug of wine on your table, and on the honor system you total up the number of glasses you've had. Or you can order a bottle of wine from the short list or several respectable wines by the glass. Meanwhile, individual loaves of hot focaccia arrive at each table, and olive oil to dip the bread in.

The food is straightforward Italian, except for those nachos, a guilty pleasure no one at my table admitted he or she liked -- but they disappeared quickly. Imagine fried won tons with an Asiago-cheese white sauce, crumbled sausage, diced tomatoes, chopped peppers and olives.

Some of the food has a bit more sophistication, like emerald spinach sauteed lightly with garlic and dressed with vinaigrette. Or a complex tomato, leek and cannellini-bean soup.

Not everything worked. Ravioli stuffed with ricotta and minced leek, swimming in a cream sauce, were just a little monotonous, and the garnish of shrimp had the chew of rubber tire. The wood-burning oven didn't produce as crisp a crust as you might expect on the pizza Napoli; but the combination of pepperoni, vinegary banana peppers, spinach and roasted garlic had lots of verve.

The best bet on the Macaroni Grill's menu is probably one of the dishes highlighted as being made from a family recipe, like scaloppine di pollo. The strips of boneless chicken breast in their buttery sauce were enhanced by mushrooms, artichoke hearts, capers and pancetta. The same sort of dish, with salmon instead of chicken and capers, diced tomato and fresh basil, also pleased. (Both are served with pasta.)

Desserts were richer than rich, the best being a liquor-soaked tiramisu. Other possibilities were a good apple-custard cake with a caramel sauce that tasted like liquid brown sugar, and an almond mousse that tasted like nothing much at all.

True, the food here is chain Italian food. But I've had lots worse in homey, family-run restaurants. And as an extra-added attraction: The Macaroni Grill plays Italian language tapes in the restrooms.

Romano's Macaroni Grill

Where: 9701 Beaver Dam Road, Timonium

Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $4.95-$8.95; entrees, $6.75-$16.45; major credit cards

Call: 410-628-7112

Pub Date: 10/26/97

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