It was a stunning blow to area diners when a fire in 2005 gutted Romano’s Macaroni Grill in south Fort Myers. The fact that Italian restaurants seem to be on every block from Punta Gorda to Marco Island brought little comfort to the restaurant’s loyal patrons.
They missed what makes the restaurant so popular, namely its inimitable dishes and upbeat staff. Other than the Macaroni Grill in Naples, there was nothing else in the area quite like it. Not surprisingly, many Southwest Florida residents cheered when the rebuilt restaurant reopened for business last February, just 10 months after it burned.
What is surprising is that in the process of reconstruction, Macaroni Grill somehow managed to make a great place even better. Since reopening last February, the dining room has stayed busier than ever, as patrons discover the new and improved Macaroni Grill.
Although the changes are subtle, they are significant. Most notably, the interior now features a larger bar and a dedicated pickup area for to-go orders. Also, the actual dining area has been thoughtfully redesigned to project a more intimate atmosphere.
For example, the oversized tables that once “floated” in the spacious room have been replaced with booths and smaller seating groups. Besides creating a cozier look, the new configuration also facilitates conversation. That’s no small achievement for a restaurant with so much square footage, such high ceilings and abundant stone surfaces, all of which tend to amplify sound.
The open display kitchen remains, along with the opera-singing servers, fresh flowers, butcher paper table covers and other special touches that started with the first Macaroni Grill in Texas in 1988. Brinker International purchased the restaurant the following year and has since introduced the concept at more than 240 locations nationwide. At each and every one, diners have come to expect the same high-quality menu items, consistently prepared and professionally served.
Certainly, that has been the case in south Fort Myers, which attracts a diverse clientele at lunch and dinner. On any given day, customers run the gamut from business people to retirees to families with young children. The menus (which include a kids’ menu) are equally diverse.
Also, as with most fine Italian restaurants, there is a wine list with a wide variety of red, white and sparkling selections. In addition, there is a full liquor bar; soft drinks, coffee, espresso and specialty beverages are available, as well.
Both lunch and dinner items are listed according to category, starting with antipasti and concluding with desserts. In between, diners will find soups and salads; grilled chicken, beef and fish (Amore de la Grill); Classico Italian (mainly classic chicken and veal entrees), Brick-Oven Pizzas and more.
While the day and nighttime menus are very similar, the prices and portions are slightly smaller at lunch vs. dinner. Pasta dishes at lunch, for example, run in the $8-$10 range vs. $10-$12 at night. Also, the lunch menu includes several sandwiches ($7-$9) not available on the dinner menu.
Macaroni Grill prides itself on originality and describes its menu as traditional Italian with a twist. For example, the Stuffed Pasta category features a Twice Baked Lasagna with Meatballs containing six layers of pasta stuffed with seasoned meatballs, three cheeses and Bolognese sauce, baked in a brick oven. The Penne Rustica is another variation on a theme, featuring imported penne pasta with shrimp, grilled chicken and smoked prosciutto, baked under a golden crust of Parmesan cheese.
Incomparable food may be the main attraction, but it’s not the only reason why patrons are loyal to Macaroni Grill, as Fort Myers resident Sheila Deleacaes will attest. Several months after being diagnosed with brain cancer last year, her husband, Pat, lost his appetite. As the disease progressed, he stopped eating and Hope Hospice stepped in to care for him.
Then he remembered the anniversary dinner he and Sheila had shared six months before at Macaroni Grill, their favorite restaurant. Suddenly, his appetite returned when he recalled what he’d ordered that night: shrimp portofino (sautéed shrimp with mushrooms, pine nuts and spinach in a lemon butter sauce, served with pasta).
When Sheila called in the order and asked about a possible discount for a Hope Hospice patient, south Fort Myers manager Kevin Baker answered without hesitation. He said she could have the dish free of charge, not just that time, but every time her husband wanted it. The generous gesture was a turning point for the Deleacaes.
Pat ate the entire entree that night and Sheila has returned for the complimentary shrimp portofino on several occasions since. She considers Baker a hero, although he downplays his good deed. “It’s really nice to know I helped someone,” he said.
For more information or to download a menu, visit www.macaronigrill.com.
(Romano’s Macaroni Grill is open daily in Market Square at 13721 S. Tamiami Trail in Ft. Myers. Lunch is served from 11 a.m. – 4 p.m.; Dinner hours are 4 p.m. – 10 p.m. weekdays and until 11 p.m. Friday & Saturday. Phone: 239-433-7786.)