There are those of us whose knee-jerk reaction to a mass-market, faux-rustic Italian eatery with five area locations is to pshaw, roll the eyes and dismiss it as a pasty starch-fest. We at Drink of the Week deserve a comeuppance every now and then, because we are so very highbrow that we drive by a joint like Romano's Macaroni Grill and, without even considering the menu, we dismiss the concept and the food outright. A pasta trough that serves thousands in the area on a nightly basis can't possibly be good. The only good Italian food comes from restaurants with a single location, preferably buried in a residential neighborhood, with an owner who seats you and a chef who stops by the table to chat.
This notion is reinforced when we waltz into the Macaroni Grill in Brentwood and order a Leaning Bellini, the franchise's version of the classic Italian cocktail. It arrives in a tall frosted glass that, alas, isn't leaning, no doubt for fear of some sort of lawsuit. Inside the glass is a frozen drink with a big red straw sticking out of it. This is the bellini, and with one big suck of the straw, the mouth is coated with ice-cold, cavity-piercing peach booze, very sweet and loaded with many different varieties of alcohol. The specifics: Bacardi rum, peach nectar, white wine and champagne, all mixed together, frozen and then squeezed out of a contraption that we imagine to resemble a 7-Eleven Slurpee machine. Which is kind of what the Leaning Bellini is: a hopped-up Slurpee for adults. It's as sweet and cold as one, though not as unnatural. We ordered our bellini as an aperitif, which was a mistake; it's much better after dinner, when the cold and the sweetness combine to suggest dessert. It's much better to stimulate the taste buds with a glass of Chianti and then move on to some peach fuzz.
The classic bellini, of course, doesn't lean. Nor does it contain rum. It's basically a mimosa that substitutes white peach nectar for orange juice. But we applaud variations. Keep sucking on the straw and, if you can avoid the frontal-lobe headache that sometimes follows a big slurp, you'll manage to get a little tipsy. Then you'll start to notice the mass-market characteristics that all such ventures share: specifically, the attempt to deny the fact that this is a suburban franchise restaurant. There's the cookie-cutter layout, and the yellow walls that seek to replicate the effect of rotting plaster found in Italian villas. There're the faux-stone supports, and the exposed beams.
But mass-market or not, we'd be lying if we said we weren't very pleasantly surprised by the food. The rosemary bread is exquisite, and the spinach salad, quickly steamed to bring out the flavor, is as fresh as at some neighborhood joints we frequent. And the pasta isn't pasty at all; on the contrary, the Macaroni churns out a decent bowl of noodles. Just don't tell any of our high-class friends; they might shun us.