Bryan Richardson
Romano's Macaroni Grill
300 SW Yamhill

Every time I go home to Chicago, my parents pick me up from the airport and we drive straight to the Cheesecake Factory restaurant--a two-story corporate monolith with a chintzy, fake sense of elegance, that granted, serves a decent piece of cheesecake. I don't understand why this restaurant fits my parents' definition of cool or exceptional, but since they're quite obviously trying to please me, I don't have the heart to question them.

I do question, however, why liberal, seemingly intelligent Portlanders are spending an hour and 15 minutes on a Friday night waiting to drop money on uninspired, overpriced spaghetti at the corporate chain the Macaroni Grill. I mean the name says it all--the confused pairing of the words "macaroni" and "grill" show that this restaurant caters to the unthinking consumer--people who'd rather blindly gobble up a $10 piece of frozen lasagna than spend two minutes browsing for a creative hometown restaurant on citysearch.

While the greasy bread the Grill serves up is tasty enough, my ability to compliment stops there. The house "Macaroni Grill Chianti" tasted like the seven-dollar double bottle of Gato Negro Merlot I occasionally settle for at Safeway. It lacked the signature crisp, dry taste of Chianti, and was instead heavy and sweet. The calamari tasted like breaded rubber bands, and I can barely even discuss my linguine with clams without getting queasy. Served in a huge bowl with no eye for presentation, leathery pieces of clam floated around with empty clamshells in generic white, salty soup. Some of the clam bits were so tough it took me up to a minute to chew them enough to swallow. After about six bites, eating my meal stopped seeming worth the trouble.

My partner's dinner, the Mama's Trio (lasagna, chicken cannelloni, and chicken parmesan), was the culinary equivalent of a Budget Gourmet dinner. The meat in the lasagna was more like grainy falafel than beef, and the spongy chicken parmesan would have been unrecognizable as chicken had it not been stated on the menu. Further offenses included grated, rather than crumbled blue cheese on the salad (probably pre-packaged and from a plastic bag), terrible Italian dressing, and food that arrived before I had a chance to take my first sip of wine. Granted, our server was friendly, but no amount of customer service can save the Macaroni Grill.

Want a great piece of lasagna? Support the local economy and head over to La Buca or Justa Pasta. Want some fabulous calamari, try the comfortable, family friendly Sal's Italian Kitchen, or the new Pearl District gem Eleni's (a Greek restaurant, but they serve the best calamari in town and tons of wonderful pasta dishes). For homemade Italian delights in huge portions, take the trip out to Gino's in Sellwood, and for a standard plate of spaghetti and meatballs try DeNicola's or Amalfi's--just whatever you do, save yourself an hour of waiting and a stomachache and skip the Macaroni Grill.