Oh, Charlotte. Land of Ikea and Fuel Pizza.
Around here, for gluten-free pizza, I've got Mellow Mushroom, Z's Pizza, Uno's and...I think that's it. A few hours away I have Fuel, the best gluten-free pizza I've had in a restaurant, by far (some locations have Redbridge).
The plan last night was to drive to Ikea right quick and stop for Fuel on the way home. Alas, I found myself at a "Romano's Macaroni Grill and Italian" instead. Though it's become easier over the last few years to eat gluten-free in a mall restaurant, as I call them (Applebee's, Chili's, TGI Friday's, any chain near a mall), words like "macaroni" and "Italian" are good tips that it's probably not gluten-free friendly.
A phone call informed us they had gluten-free pasta and pizza. I was surprised and skeptical but outnumbered, so Gluten Factory - I mean, Romano's, it was.
It's one of the worst places I've eaten - no, I can't really say worst because that implies there's something to talk about. It was one of the most flavorless and - let's start at the beginning.
It was packed. Smack in the middle of the floor was a table of 20+ people. We were seated in a booth between them and the open kitchen.
This open kitchen could get its own post. "If they're going to have an open kitchen," I said to my companions, "they should at least keep it clean and pay the staff a little extra to not yell at each other." Dishes were stacked upon stacks. The overall energy of the staff seemed somewhere between harried and confused. Our table was covered in white paper and the waitress wrote her name in crayon. ...ooookay. America can have this weird effort of trying to pull off a faux-classy ambiance, while leaving crayons on the paper tablecloth. It's mall food. It's a culture of pretending to be things you are not.
"She's got to be new," I remarked about our waitress. "She seems confused about everything." And like she really didn't want to be there. At an hour, we still didn't have our entrees. If it wasn't for the bottles of water they leave on the table, we'd have been pretty thirsty, too.
Long story short, the food was terrible, the service was absent, and I would rather eat gas station snacks than go there again.
Here's the thing, they do have an extensive allergen menu giving options for gluten-free, dairy, nuts, shellfish and several other common food no-nos. The majority of the gluten-free options just involved using gluten-free penne and removing the bread. And, the majority of the menu was not an option. I can eat pasta marinara at home. When I eat out, it's for something I can't have at home. More on that later.
The regular menu also mentions that gluten-free pasta is an option. The menu on their website does not mention allergens. I had to google "romano's gluten free menu" to find it.
We got the baked prosciutto and mozzarella to start with (Ikea hunger!) - without bread. Actually, we asked for the bread on the side since one person could eat it, but better safe than sorry. Usually we DON'T ask for croutons, and get them, so no big deal. We got a little dish of prosciutto slices rolled around mozzarella in a bright red sauce. It tasted like salt. Yes, prosciutto is salty but this was unpleasant to eat, it was so salty. The mozzarella was rubbery and flavorless. The tomato sauce was a little sweet and fairly fresh-tasting, but otherwise non-remarkable. If the cheese had been a lovely, melted, proper mozzarella I might have suffered through the saltiness but it simply wasn't worth eating.
I spent the next hour or so people watching. Waitstaff seemed to be all over the place - at one point a woman in a chef's coat served a table, so we assumed they were super busy/short-staffed. They have this...water bottle-filling station smack in the middle of the main floor, it was pretty wet when I went to the restroom and I thought, "Liability not a concern here..." I was nearly to the point of trying to approach someone to ask for more water, and check on our food, when it arrived.
I wish I'd had a camera. The shrimp portofino with gluten-free penne pasta was about as anti-climactic as I could have made up. It's described as, "jumbo shrimp, capellini, spinach, mushrooms, pine nuts, lemon butter." It arrived as regular-sized, overcooked and dry shrimp, baby spinach out of a bag, not even wilted, mushrooms, no pine nuts and some sort of cream sauce with no flavor. It was so bland, I think I laughed. It didn't have pine nuts - the boyf ordered the regular version, his also didn't have any pine nuts. At this point I just wanted to get out of there (it was pretty loud and just felt crowded and over-seated) and I ate maybe half of it. It just, like the appetizer, wasn't worth eating.
Adding insult to injury, mine had a regular spaghetti noodle in it. Cross-contamination is a tough topic because some people don't care and others are fastidious. My girlfriend in Atlanta wouldn't have touched it. She doesn't use pans that have touched gluten. Me, I was hongry! The boyfriend snatched the offending noodle and that was that.
My mom's fettuccine alfredo looked like the sauce was cold, it had that congealed/chunky look cream sauce gets after it's been sitting. She commented later she thought they were pretty "stingy" with the sauce. And, her bowl of gluten-free penne pasta not only had a regular spaghetti noodle in it, but some sort of mystery chunk that we surmised might be chicken! Who knows? What if a gluten-free vegetarian had ordered it? And people are allergic to chicken.
She and I don't worry too much about gluten cross-contamination but for others with more serious allergies it could have been a serious problem. I figured they probably used the same tongs for all pasta, and it just stuck. My mom's guess was they use the same water to boil all the pasta. Either way, cross-contaminating in a restaurant is bad news.
Remember the girl with a nut allergy who died from kissing her boyfriend, after he had a pb&j sandwich? Though gluten isn't necessarily an instantaneously life-threatening illness, other food allergies can be. A restaurant who goes to the pains of printing out an extensive menu with allergen info should be making every effort to guarantee the products they list as __-free actually are!
I will say this: the pasta itself was cooked to perfection. It really was.
But there's no way in heck I'd want to eat there again. Later in the evening, when boyf and I were going back over the meal we both agreed that regardless of the obnoxious ambiance, the poor service and the cross-contamination mishaps, at the end of it the main problem was the ridiculous price they charged for what we got (the fourth dish, salmon, was downright burnt). A bowl of unseasoned pasta with a scant handful of uncooked/seasoned spinach from a bag and a couple of mushrooms and over-cooked, unseasoned shrimp, no pine nuts, no trace of lemon or butter flavor for $15. Nuh-uh. Mark-up all you want, restaurants, but give me SOMEthing for my money!
I think it's fantastic that Romano's Macaroni Grill has their allergen menu, I do, but there's not really a point in saying you can make something gluten-free, if you don't.
Now, the follow-up is a much happier tale. My mom emailed them about the cross-contamination issue - not to complain, just to alert them to the issue. Having a food intolerance creates solidarity, you know?
Within a couple of hours the manager of the location we were at (in the University area? On Research Road?) called her back! She was very apologetic (of course) and said the waitress was indeed new, and that they have very strict protocol and procedure for handling allergen requests/orders and that clearly, the procedure was not followed. So, boo to Macaroni Grill for their food, but hooray for their excellent customer service. Again, I want to give them credit for having a gluten-free/allergen menu but if the food isn't actually free of the problem ingredient, what's the point??
If you're in Charlotte, eat Fuel. And send me some. THE END!