You'd almost expect an Italian mama to come out of the kitchen, pinch your cheeks and admonish you to "Mangia!" as you sit in this spacious, well-lit restaurant designed to look like an outdoor Italian kitchen.
Patio lights are strung along the walls, the floor is terra cotta tile and the walls are stucco. Everything is open here. Tableware, bread and big jugs of house wine are set on long tables that run down the center of the restaurant and hold big vases of fresh gladiolus.
Smiling, fresh-faced waiters bustle about looking as if they really enjoy their jobs. On a recent weekday evening the service was swift and attentive. No fewer than four people waited on us during the course of our dinner.
We were disappointed to discover that the half-dozen hosts and waiters who sing opera to customers were not working that night. But our only-too-ready-to-please waiter gathered his colleagues for a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday to You in Italian _ even though it wasn't our birthday.
But none of this is designed to detract from the star of this experience: the food.
The emphasis is on fresh. The mozzarella served with tomato, olive oil, oregano and basil fell apart at the touch. The pasta is freshly made and served in intriguing combinations. That night's special, with shrimp and scallops in a Parmesan sauce was delicious and rich. The veal marsala was wonderfully flavorful, although a little chewy. The fresh-baked bread topped with rosemary is meant to be dipped in a plate of olive oil and fresh cracked pepper.
The house red wine _ served in a huge glass jug and imbibed from big thick drinking glasses, was plentiful, dry and tasty.
So, mangia bene.
_ KIM NORRIS
Romano's Macaroni Grill
14904 N Dale Mabry Hwy., 264-6676
Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10:15 p.m.; Friday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11:15 p.m.
Payment: Cash, major credit cards.
Atmosphere: Italian Kitchen casual. Wear elastic.
Alcohol: Three house wines, 23 label wines, 12 available by the glass.
Prices: Antipasto, Insalata and Pizza $3.95 to $7.95; Entrees $6.75 to $13.95.
Menu highlights: Mozzarella alla Caprese, daily pasta and seafood specials, fresh baked bread with rosemary, decadent desserts.