Mangia, Mangia, Mangia

Battle of the Chain Italian Restaurants

click to enlarge NOTHING TO HIDE: Open exhibition kitchens, like - this one at Johnny Carino's, are all the rage. - VALERIE MURPHY
NOTHING TO HIDE: Open exhibition kitchens, like this one at Johnny Carino's, are all the rage.

I recently dined at a new chain restaurant with a friend who informed the waiter that she was glad to have such a nice Italian restaurant near her house. I was surprised. After all, like me, my friend has an Italian heritage and can be very fussy about her pasta. And this was a chain, not a true Italian trattoria. Our waiter was African-American, the chef in the gleaming exhibition kitchen was Hispanic, and the décor owed more to Disney-fied Old World fantasies than any actual Italian heirlooms. "A nice Italian restaurant?" Was she joking, or earnestly betraying our culinary tradition?And then I thought about my grandmother, who still rolls out her own pasta but adores the Macaroni Grill. I considered the fact that some of the most popular chains are designed by executive chefs who borrow liberally from their heritage, and that, in this age of culinary fusion, just about anyone can choose to become a chef in the Italian tradition. Was I being too hard on the big, bad corporations? I decided to look more critically at the Italian franchises popping up right and left.

Of all the culinary genres, it's Italian that has enjoyed the greatest degree of success in the mid-priced chain restaurant community. Following the groundbreaking work of Darden Restaurants' (General Mills) Olive Garden concept, several other companies are getting in on the noodles and gravy action. With 524 locations in North America, the Olive Garden ain't going anywhere. But which of the newer chains is the next contender?

Johnny Carino's, Romano's Macaroni Grill and Carrabba's are the three I'll talk about here. Each restaurant has a slightly different concept and culinary philosophy, but all emphasize traditional Italian fare in a casual atmosphere with eager, friendly service. To keep things on an even keel, I ordered pasta with meat sauce, bruschetta, and a dessert at each restaurant.

Johnny Carino's is one of the newest players in town. With locations recently opened on Dale Mabry at I-275 and in Wesley Chapel, this Austin, Texas-based franchise is moving tentatively into a community already thoroughly doused with marinara. The head of Fired Up, Inc., Carino's parent company, is a former Cheesecake Factory executive who clearly knows his stuff, and has guided franchise locations into the triple digits. The restaurant concept is a cozy Tuscan trattoria with an open "exhibition" kitchen (exhibition kitchens are all the rage, as you'll see), a Sinatra-heavy soundtrack, charmingly mismatched wooden chairs and low-beamed ceilings. On a recent lunch hour, the place was packed and the din reminiscent of my last extended-family get-together. Ah, just like home.

And the pasta ($8.99) matched perfectly, with a thick, meaty sauce redolent of homey seasonings and a good proportion of ground beef. I also enjoyed Carino's crunchy bruschetta ($4.49), which was topped with a pile of diced tomatoes dressed with basil, olive oil and no dearth of golden roasted garlic. Though neither of these dishes is going to set the culinary world on fire, they were both flavorful and filling and certainly hit the comfort-food spot. Desserts were far fancier. I especially loved the slim but rich cannoli, dipped in dark chocolate that complemented, but did not overwhelm, the sweet cheese filling. Johnny Carino's styles itself a home-style Italian country kitchen, and with its friendly, down-to-earth attitude and emphasis on simple, inexpensive classics, it fills a niche that might keep even "salad and breadsticks lunch" king Olive Garden on its toes.

Romano's Macaroni Grill (219 locations and counting) is part of the Brinker International family of restaurants that includes both Chili's and another Italian joint, Maggiano's (whose single Bay area location is on Westshore Boulevard). All of the recipes at Macaroni Grill are developed by Brinker's "Culinary Council" in Chicago.

The corporate attitude comes through in the menu, which teems with specialty frozen beverages and a "pick-your-own-pasta" option that should provide a perfect showcase for Macaroni Grill's exhibition kitchens, but actually detracts from the experience. Rather than offering us cohesive dishes gleaned from the best combinations trained chefs have to offer, this arrangement leaves us to fend for ourselves, putting together pasta plates that might not match very well. Still, the choose-your-own-adventure style is a customer favorite, so the luxury of options surely outweighs whatever "buffet line" impression it might make.

Unfortunately, I liked Macaroni's spaghetti Bolognese ($7.99) the least of any I tried. Though meaty, the ultra-chunky gravy just wasn't "saucy" enough for my taste. The bruschetta ($5.49) at Macaroni Grill proved the most unusually constructed of the three. Heaped with tomatoes and whole basil leaves, each slice of roasted bread was topped with a floppy sliver of Parmesan cheese. Everyone at the table had difficulty navigating the dish, and none of us found that the abundance of cheese added much to the flavor. Much better, in fact, was the free bread served at the table, which was a heavy, country bread infused with herbs. We couldn't get enough. For dessert, we tried sweet, lightly browned cannoli in a pool of rich fudge sauce that satisfied every sweet tooth in a three-table radius. So, leave the meat sauce, take the cannoli. I can't help but feel that, with all the expansion, Macaroni Grill has lost some of that tableside-opera-singing, Chianti-in-juice-glasses charm that used to set it apart from the crowd. However, the service was the most outstanding of an excessively competitive bunch. (And you can still get an impromptu Italian lesson just by visiting the restroom.)

Carrabba's, our final contender, is the brainchild of Johnny Carrabba and Damian Mandola, a Texas duo well known for their line of cookbooks and PBS show, Cucina Mandola. Though the decade-long partnership with Tampa Bay's own Outback Steakhouse has been responsible for expanding the franchise to over 100 locations, Carrabba and Mandola still oversee much of the menu development and regularly visit the "Carrabbamicos" (the corporation's all-too-cutesy term for employees) at each of the restaurants. The concept aims for a slightly more upscale experience than either Macaroni Grill or Johnny Carino's. Carrabba's is open only for dinner, and features more gourmet ingredients as well as a sizeable wine list.

The bruschetta at Carrabba's is a "daily special" situation, with grilled, olive oil-brushed bread served with the chef's choice of toppings. During my visit, it was marinara and goat cheese, a concoction that blew every other version right out of the water. My giant bowl of spaghetti ($10.99) had a red, meaty sauce with a strong tomato flavor and fresh herb seasonings. Unfortunately, Carrabba's is severely lacking in the cannoli department, so we contented ourselves with a decidedly untraditional, but very moist and rich, brownie brushed with Kahlua ($4.99) for dessert. Carrabba's service also gets points for diverting from corporate strategy and letting the diner know when one of the company's dishes aren't worth the hype. Carrabba's cuisine definitely had something special, but you pay for the pleasure, and the menu is only available at suppertime.

So, who is the last chain restaurant left standing? Tough call. Though the food at Carrabba's edges out the competition, Johnny Carino's home-style flair, delicious presentations and inexpensive menu gives the newcomer a leg up. Bringing up the rear is Romano's Macaroni Grill, whose quirky touches and fantastic service fail to redeem the uneven bill of fare.

Freelance writer Diana Peterfreund dines anonymously and the Planet pays for her meals. She may be contacted at [email protected] Restaurants are chosen for review at the discretion of the writer, and are not related to advertising.