I know many who immediately dismiss all chain restaurants, but I’ve had a longtime affection for Romano’s Macaroni Grill, especially in comparison to the Italian chain so many others love, Olive Garden.

It really just starts in the exhibition kitchen, where you can see well-trained chefs wearing themselves out preparing actual Italian food, not just “assembling” food and pawning it off to an unsuspecting public. You can go in the side door to order takeout, as I’ve often done, and just watch them work after ordering at the handy counter with special parking spots for to-go customers (one fantastic feature that places like Chili’s and Applebee’s also have). Unlike most other chains, they offer seasonal menus for a few months here and there like they have recently with their “La Venemmia” Tuscan countryside menu. The Italian phrase means “the harvest” and the autumn-inspired fare, available through the end of the year, is worth making a special visit.

The items include a pumpkin spice cannoli ($7.50) and a lamb braciole ($23), which we ordered. I attempted to order the pork saltimbocca ($22) but the waitress informed me that the kitchen said they were already out of it. The menu had described it as “pork scaloppini stuffed with imported prosciutto and fontina cheese in a fresh lemon sauce with sautéed spinach.” Who could read that and not drift into bitter disappointment at not being able to order it? I went with my backup choice off the seasonal menu, the spaghetti carbonara ($18). The only other Tuscan item was an appetizer of mushroom arancini ($8), crispy risotto balls stuffed with Parmesan, mushrooms and mozzarella with a truffle Alfredo sauce.

My companion’s lamb was first-rate, wrapped in prosciutto to give it a crispy exterior and stuffed with asparagus spears (protruding from the stuffed meat), spinach, pine nuts and a cheese blend. There was a bit of mint in the whole mix and we debated whether that came from the herbs or the pine nuts, but it was welcome, not overwhelming. It was served with this fascinating trofie pasta, a short, thin, twisted pasta that we’ve seldom run across in our restaurant visits, presented in a light spinach and olive oil sauce. There were two of the lamb bracioles, which always remind me of the German rouladen dish I grew up with, often made with flank steak.

My pasta was just fine, served with chopped cherry tomatoes, a lot of bacon, light creamy sauce and chopped bits of fresh asparagus, but it just seemed less special, less distinctive, more along the lines of the regular menu that I felt cheated. Perhaps it was just the anticipation of the pork and the fontina cheese, lemon sauce and prosciutto that just wouldn’t leave my brain. I can just imagine why the kitchen ran out of it. I would have loved using the sauce as a dip with the fresh baked rosemary peasant bread that they bring to every table with olive oil.

The cannoli sort of made up for it, with a pumpkin spice cream cheese inside the house-made shells. Our waitress couldn’t answer my companion’s question about whether the other desserts on the tray were made on the premises or not. Usually this restaurant has a more informed staff. She also noted that the kitchen struggled to time our meal preparation properly, with a noticeable delay for my companion’s lamb long after my pasta had made an appearance. This kind of amateurish work was not consistent with past visits.

Another special deal they’ve unveiled is a pretty cool value. On Thursday nights, two can dine for $40: two entrees from a list of six, one dessert from a list of three, and two glasses of wine, beer or cocktails. Seven bottles of wine are available for $20 with any entree purchase that night including the respectable Z. Alexander Brown red blend that went for $12 a glass when we visited. And they have another special meal available for $25 that the call the “Feast For Five,” available Sunday through Thursday after 4 p.m. with free delivery when you order it online.

Pete Tittl’s Dining Out column appears in The Californian on Sundays. Email him at pftittl@yahoo.com.

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