Macaroni's Ristorante

With "neoclassic" Italian dining available downstairs and a trendy lounge, full bar and restaurant upstairs, Macaroni's Ristorante and Martino's Restaurant & Lounge offer all the creature comforts to please locals and tourists.

Both venues are just steps from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival courtyard — out the back door of Martino's or a quick jaunt up Chautauqua Walk, between 42 and 50 E. Main St. Lunch and outdoor seating are available during the warmer months.

Longtime denizens of Ashland, an old friend and I waited for the tourists to clear out before making a dinner reservation at Macaroni's.

The original restaurant was the brainchild of Beasy McMillan, who has turned many dining concepts into successful eateries in Ashland. Macaroni's is now operated by Marty Morlan. The upstairs lounge was added around 1995.

Our tenacity pleasantly paid off. Business was steady at Macaroni's the night we dined, not too crowded.

Martino's and Macaroni's are serviced by the same kitchen, known for its specialty pasta dishes, gourmet pizzas and calzones. I've heard a couple of raves about the Caesar salad, although I've never tried one.

Our server started our meal with a basket of white and dark bread. Olive oil, vinegar and grated Parmesan were among the staples at the table. The olive oil was slightly sweet, and it paired deliciously with the dark bread. I could have dined on it alone.

We skipped the antipasti, which includes a traditional assortment of scampi, steamer clams, crostini, bruschetta and macaroni and cheese made with white cheddar. Some appetizers, such as fruit and cheese or grilled chicken topped with fruit, are seasonal. Prices range from $5.25 to $13.75.

We mused over the menu and the wine list for a while before deciding on Capellini d'Mediterranean, Lasagna alla Besciamella and a bottle of Italian pinot grigio.

After our server took our order, we settled in for a long, relaxing meal.

Pasta, ravioli and lasagna dishes include a choice of Caesar salad, "insalata mista" or minestrone.

My friend tried the salad, a mix of greens and vegetables tossed with red-wine vinegar and olive oil, and I tried the minestrone, full of carrots, zucchini, garbanzo beans and pasta shells.

We were a little disappointed with the first course. The salad was fresh, crispy and full of sliced cucumbers and tomatoes — and served in a deep, wooden bowl, which I thought was a nice touch. The soup also was fresh, but neither dish had any taste. I wondered if the chef was trying too hard to please everyone or relied on his patrons to add salt or sprinkles of Parmesan.

Then, of course, we wondered if our taste buds, among other things, had become jaded in our old age, or if we were showing our ignorance.

Reactions to the first bites of our entrees were the opposite. The capellini and lasagna were delicious, loaded with rich ingredients and lots of flavor.

The Besciamella is a great choice for an alternative diet, with layers of zucchini, squash, spinach, mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes and ricotta smothered in a creamy white sauce.

My friend's Capellini d'Mediterranean was amazing: a gratin dish piled with angel hair tossed with chicken, Kalamata olives, spinach, tomatoes, white wine-garlic sauce and feta. It goes without saying that we shared bites of these sumptuous dishes.

There's an extensive list of entrees with prices ranging from $12.25 for fettuccine Alfredo to $20.25 for lobster ravioli. Calzones range from $12 to $13, and pizzas start at $8.75 for a 7-inch to $13.25 for a 9-inch pie. See martinosashland.com for menus.

We shamelessly topped off our dinners with an order of tiramisu, a decadent dessert of ladyfingers dipped in coffee, layered with a mixture of mascarpone and other ingredients ($6.25).

All in all, we thought it was pretty good food. Next time, we'll dine upstairs at Martino's — maybe take in some live jazz with saxophonist Paul Schmeling and his trio.

— Laurie Heuston

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