Distinctive touches make Macaroni Grill more than a link in a chain

Traditional Italian food served with sensitivity to special diets

Restaurant Review

Howard Live

April 08, 2005|By Sheila Young | Sheila Young,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Macaroni Grill may be a national chain, but that doesn't mean it lacks personality. And it has found a winning formula with a sophisticated but fun atmosphere, and good food for all kinds of diets.

At the Columbia Crossing location, the dining room - big enough to be considered an "area" - is large and noisy, but there's enough wood and tile to keep it from looking sterile.

And distinctive touches throughout give the place flair.

Each table is covered with a thick sheet of drawing paper and has two crayons at the ready. For antsy youngsters, one would suppose, but my teen-age son doodled caricatures between courses, too.

An archway of shelves next to our table held dozens of Chianti bottles "decorated" by patrons using crayons - Macaroni "graffiti" that added visual interest and provoked conversation between courses.

We've been there on weekend nights - even very early on weekend nights - when the wait for a table can extend to 45 minutes and longer. On a recent Monday night, we were seated right away, but the place was still loud and busy.

It is easy to see why. This cathedral to pasta offers the usual Italian fare and some excellent specialties, all in huge portions.

Smart management has also adjusted to diet trends. The menu offers low-carb and low-fat selections, and footnotes advise that spinach or grilled asparagus can be substituted for pasta in any dinner.

And our accommodating waiter said several times that we had only to request special treatment of a dish and the kitchen would happily comply.

But on the night we visited, we were quite in the mood for a full-blown, delicious pasta ritual.

My son started with a chicken Caesar salad, a huge bowl of crunchy lettuce seeded with strips of grilled chicken and deliciously coated with the classic dressing applied in just the right proportion.

I tried mushroom ravioli, which was available that night as an appetizer or a main course, and it was so good I later wished I had made it my entree.

Four plump, perfectly cooked ravioli arrived still simmering in a silky, lush Marsala cream sauce. The mushroom filling was subtle and delectable.

Even my son, who does not like mushrooms, enjoyed it. It was the kind of dish that makes you want to grab bread and sop up all the sauce that remains.

Our entrees were generally good, solid Italian preparations. My son ordered Penne Rustica, which our waiter said was the restaurant's most popular dish.

Just about everything is in that dish: shrimp, grilled chicken, smoked prosciutto and penne pasta baked with a topping of cheese. I found the dish a little light on the sauce and a little heavy on the sage. But my son enjoyed it.

I decided on a tasting menu of sorts - "Mama's Trio," a sampling of lasagna Bolognese, chicken cannelloni and chicken Parmigiana with mozzarella and fresh basil.

The cannelloni rivaled the mushroom ravioli for top honors with its creamy sauce and delicate cheese filling.

The chicken Parmigiana could have had crispier breading, and the red sauce was bland. Nevertheless, the chicken was juicy and plump.

The lasagna Bolognese was a major disappointment - heavy and almost flavorless, despite its hearty proportions of meat, sauce and lasagna noodles.

After such a heavy meal, my son chose zabaglione for dessert - light and delicate with fresh strawberries, a perfect finish.

Stuffed but wanting to continue with my "classic" Italian selections, I opted for Romano's tiramisu, which had good flavors but was a little dry.

It also came in a huge portion - which some may argue was too daunting after such a heavy meal. But it is big enough to share easily with friends around the table.

Macaroni Grill

Where: 6181 Columbia Crossing Circle, Columbia

Call: 410-872-0626

Hours: Lunch and dinner daily

Credit cards: all major

Prices: appetizers, $5.49-$9.99; entrees, $8.29-$17.99

Food: **

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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