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CHAIN REACTION

For years Village Inn has encouraged people to drop on in at Cherry Creek--and no one complains. But let some of the newer, hipper chain restaurants move into the area and all hell breaks loose.

Chains rattle other restaurants for two reasons. The first, and most galling, is that the public fails--or refuses--to recognize that chains often use food prepared with that most essential cooking utensil, the can opener, and wind up serving meals that could be assembled by kitchen robots, so stringent are the corporate rule books that pass for recipes. But the other, more crucial reason is that these links often are part of a strand so big it can afford to buy everything, including advertising, in large quantities, which enables the chains to let a wider audience know that they can afford to charge lower prices than an independent operation.

They certainly know how to use the old noodle at the Macaroni Grill, a 300-seat monstrosity that opened two months ago to sellout crowds. We had to wait for a table at lunch, and it's still jammed on weekends, but the kitchen hustles and service is impeccable; this isn't surprising, considering each server is assigned a three-table station, a luxury available only to restaurants busy enough to turn tables over several times in one shift.

The Macaroni premise comes courtesy the family of Phil Romano, a consultant for Dallas-based Brinker International, which bought the idea from him and also owns Grady's, Chili's, On the Border and a few other concept restaurants that haven't made it to Denver (yet). Romano's original intention, according to the menu, was to make diners feel as if they were eating in his house--a nice thought, except that most houses don't have seventy tables in the dining room. One way in which Macaroni Grill fosters this homey notion is by plopping down a gallon jug of wine (its own bottlings) and putting you on the honor system: Tell the waiter how many glasses you've drunk and he'll charge $2.35 a glass. Another down-home touch is that many of the recipes supposedly come from Romano's grandfather, who, according to the menu, "lived to eat."

Gramps probably didn't have his hand in the Caesar salad (75 cents with entree), however. Macaroni uses the traditional ingredients of this creation by an Italian chef in Mexico--coddled eggs, garlic, lemon juice, parmesan, Worcestershire sauce, anchovies and croutons--mixed with a tiny bit of nontraditional mayonnaise.

The pasta di pollo al sugo bianco ($6.25) does come from a family recipe, a distinction noted on the menu with an asterisk. For this luncheon dish, farfalle was tossed with generous amounts of grilled chicken and pancetta, red onions and a stunning Asiago cream sauce. With the day's pizza special ($5.95), though, the Cherry Creek kitchen was entirely on its own. The corporate owners supervise the regular menu, but daily specials are left to the individual outlets. In this case, the individual-sized pie had started with the sort of airy, crunchy crust found in Italy--but it was soaked through with oil, which made the center soft and soggy. The toppings, however, were top-notch: grilled chicken, sun-dried tomatoes and mushrooms interspersed with pesto and blanketed with mozzarella cheese.

The day's pasta special ($6.95) was a disappointment. The scallops, black olives, red onions and mozzarella were lost in a too-thick marinara sauce heavy on tomato paste, and the accompanying ball of spaghettini was mushy from overcooking.

The tiramisu ($2.95) wasn't much better. It had a watered-down quality and little flavor; mascarpone cheese wasn't enough to carry what should also taste of espresso and ladyfingers. But our other desserts were ample compensation: The apple custard torte ($2.95) had a marvelous hazelnut crust and a mellow apple flavor, and the chocolate cake, while lighter than it looked, had a wonderful, dense flavor.

While the Macaroni Grill is off to a strong start, the nearby Sfuzzi is making a comeback. This is another massive dining room, albeit one with a classier atmosphere and slightly more sophisticated fare than you find at Macaroni. Then again, the prices are higher...much higher.

Also headquartered in Dallas, Sfuzzi now has twenty restaurants nationwide, all of which feature elaborate friezes with carvings meant to represent their location (at the Denver locale, which opened in 1990, the frieze depicts a gold nugget and a pick) as well as a sort of classic Roman theme.

During my last visit a year ago, I'd found all the dishes lacking and a fairly chaotic scene in the dining room; recently, however, the management staff in both the kitchen and the dining room have changed for the better.

That's not to say the service couldn't still use some fine-tuning. Sfuzzi is often filled--sometimes with a strange mix of well-dressed teenage mall-crawlers and aging women with diamonds bigger than salt shakers and hair dyed unusual shades of orange. During our lunchtime visit, the staff seemed absolutely overwhelmed by the crowd; we had to stand awkwardly a few inches from a table of clearly irritated eaters because someone mistakenly thought our table was ready. And once we were seated, our waiter started coming around less and less as he took on more and more tables.

But we could deal with service troubles more easily than we could stomach the ridiculous--even by Cherry Creek standards--prices. Maybe Sfuzzi is trying to pretend it's not part of a chain by jacking up the cost of eating there.

The food itself was fine--just not worth the money. The Caesar salad ($3.95), for example, consisted of a small portion of romaine in a pool of watery dressing that our waiter described as "creamy" and that contained nothing except parmesan cheese to suggest it was a Caesar dressing. And the focaccia crouton was a hunk hard enough to chip teeth.

The smoked-chicken pizza ($8.75) had a crust well-balanced between chewy and crispy, but the topping was light on chicken while heavy on rosemary, caramelized onions and goat cheese. And I was a little disgruntled when I discovered the waiter had brought the larger of the two sizes offered--the small, six-slice for $7.25 would have been plenty for one--rather than ask which I wanted. With the rigatoni rustica ($9.25), we had no complaints except the price. Sweet, spicy sausage had been simmered in the sauce of fresh tomatoes, roasted red bell peppers and mozzarella. I could eat that sausage every day, it was so pungent and juicy. But nine dollars for pasta at lunch is absurd.

The desserts, made in-house, also were excellent. The tiramisu ($4.50) was a massive sponge of chocolate cake layered with mascarpone and covered with chocolate shavings; it sat in a lake of Leghorn sauce made from a reduction of espresso and rum. And an order of frozen cappuccino ice cream pie ($3.95) brought an enormous wedge rife with cappuccino inside an Oreo-cookie crust. The sizes of the desserts made them worthier of their price tags than the rest of the meal had been.

Even though I found Szuffi much improved and the Macaroni Grill far better than I'd imagined, I was happy to escape from the chain gang. There are simply too many good, independent restaurants out there.

And I've got my own can opener at home.


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