Sometimes, in my blacker moments, I think Holden Caulfield came to an honorable end.
The protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye couldn't stand the corrupting phoniness of American life, and found himself institutionalized when he couldn't adjust to it. People who have had a car salesman drape an arm over their shoulder, presumptuously use their first name and offer a very special deal just for them know why Holden cracked.
In our mass society, where the mindless compulsion to consume has become a major virtue, the taste-makers have figured out a sure-fire way to stoke our spending urges, while making us feel good about the whole, phony process: Pretend we're part of one big, happy family.
Yearn to somehow belong, to fit in? Join the MCI family. Watch Arizona's news family on local television. Or root for your Phoenix Suns. (If they're my Phoenix Suns, how come I can't get a seat?) Restaurants that target the hungry masses also aim to furnish that crucial, warming "family" experience. So what if the chef's principal talent is not culinary prowess, but portion control? So what if the only family the staff will remind you of is the Manson family? After all, anything's better than feeling like one of the dismal diners in Edward Hopper's painting "Nighthawks." Romano's Macaroni Grill is part of a megacorporate restaurant chain operation--Chili's is a sibling--that tries to make you believe there's a Romano family member stirring vessels of marinara sauce back in the kitchen. A treacly, first-person menu narrative reads like a scene from I Remember Mama, Italian division. You don't have to be as sensitive a soul as Holden Caulfield to feel like gagging.
The place, though, has obviously touched a nerve. It's been phenomenally successful since it opened a few months ago. (Look for a second Valley spot soon.) Two-hour waits are not uncommon. If you want to eat at prime dining hours, you need to call at 4 o'clock and make a reservation. If you arrive promptly, you'll get seated in about half an hour. Maybe. Instead of playing up phony "family" nonsense, Romano's Macaroni Grill should be unashamedly celebrating its corporate vision. Tremendous management know-how, not the quirky kitchen skill of some Mama Romano, is its key to success. I have the feeling that if these savvy operators were running the American electronics industry, the Japanese would soon be exporting nothing but cheap ballpoint pens. First, the restaurant's look. It's a cross between Italian warehouse and country home. Rustic jugs of wine fill an entire wall. Other shelves hold jars of olive oil and peppers. Patient patrons sit on bags of flour and crates of canned tomatoes, waiting for their tables. An open kitchen with lots of busy cooks bustles off to the side. The place is ear-splittingly noisy, but undeniably festive. Second, the staff. They're young, well-trained pros. They soothe you immediately, apologizing for your long wait. They're friendly, but in a way that suggests the kids next door, not Moonie disciples. They pace the meal properly and otherwise leave you alone. Next, the nice touches. Wonderful, steaming, rosemary-freshened focaccia came to the table almost the same time we did, staving off complete hunger collapse. Want some house wine? They'll bring over a jug, and when it's time to go, you tell them how many glasses you had. Sure it's corny, but it's an ingenious way to make customers feel virtuous and drink up at the same time. And I almost fell off my chair when the grated cheese showed up. It's real Parmigiano Reggiano, shaved before your eyes. Finally, the food. Though the family kitchen theme is fake, the fare, to my astonishment, is pretty much for real. It's got variety. It's reasonably priced. It's tasty. And there's plenty of it. No wonder the masses have massed. Steer away from appetizers, though, unless you put in 12 hours a day as a lumberjack. The massive piles of nachos Napoli and fried calamari are real appetite crushers, just slightly less expensive than the main dishes and not as appealing.
Instead, head straight for the entrees. I never expected the quality of veal I sampled here. The scaloppine is a tempting delight, thin, crisp medallions lightly breaded and seasoned, with not even a hint of gristle, moistened with just the right amount of tomato sauce and asiago cream. Same thing with chicken scaloppine, thick hunks of boneless breast engagingly garnished with artichokes, capers and mushrooms. If you're used to Italian chicken and veal dishes arriving in metal chafing dishes, drowned in tomato sauce and melted cheese, these plates will be eye-openers. Grilled sweet sausage is also marvelous, surrounded by hearty slabs of red and green pepper, onion and squash, along with lovely wedges of roast potato. With focaccia, it's a satisfying meal, at a satisfying $8.95 price. The kitchen is less adept with pasta. Thin spaghetti with shrimp doesn't offer too many flavor explosions, despite a few pine nuts and spinach leaves. And the pasta alla amatriciana--here, penne with pancetta, white wine, cheese and tomato--lacked an olive-oil punch. Pizzas, though, are first-rate. The thin-crusted house version features a lip-smacking blend of ricotta, Gruyäre and smoked mozzarella, zipped up with diced pancetta and a sprinkling of sun-dried tomatoes. Desserts may have a corporate imprimatur, but they still deliver. Tiramisu provides sweet satisfaction. And the apple torte--graham-cracker crust, thick, eggy custard filling and caramelized apple topping--is a real crowd-pleaser. Does it really matter that corporate headquarters, and not Mama Romano, controls recipes and food quality? If dining were simply the act of chewing and swallowing, probably not. But eating serves a crucial social as well as physical function. And I don't want that experience shaped by people who see it merely as a bottom-line opportunity. Ideology aside, is Romano's Macaroni Grill worth the wait? No, nothing is. But if you can delay dinner until the masses have gone home to snooze in front of the boob tube, the Italian eats here are good enough to corrode your principles. Tiramisu, 10435 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 991-1080. Hours: Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.