The Romano Empire

Phil Romano may be the Steven Spielberg of the restaurant industry, but he's more than just a crafter of little entertainments made on budgets bigger than those for the Pentagon's toilet seat allotment. Phil Romano is a showman in the vein of P.T. Barnum; or better, Walt Disney. Like Walt, Romano is a master showman with a shrewd eye toward merchandising. Not in the sense that you're likely to see kids wearing Phil Romano elbow-macaroni watches any time soon, but in the sense that his restaurants are little theme parks. And like P.T. Barnum, Romano throws around the word "greatest" like George W. tosses around tortured syntax.

Walk into Eatzi's--a farmers market, a deli and a bowl-game halftime show all rolled into one bulging sandwich wrap--and you're blasted by a loud voice on the P.A. system: "Welcome to the greatest market on earth." And even if it isn't, it's hard not to fall under its spell. Baskets of colorful fruits and vegetables that reach from the floor to the ceiling are stacked against one wall. The center of the place is a little theater in the round of food cases stuffed with dressings, relishes, salads, fresh fish, meats including preseasoned bone-in cowboy rib eyes and honey-soy flank satay, stuffed peppers and cooked pasta. Chefs scurry everywhere, trying to bob and weave before the knots of shoppers who elbow, stiff-arm and toe-stomp for greater shopping advantage.

But if ordering links of fresh Italian sausage or collecting plastic boats of sushi isn't enough to arouse a sense of sensual drama, then perhaps the arias are, punched out of the public address system like so many inches of ground beef. Or maybe the wine is, crates of which rope low along nearly every foot of trample space. Romano must have discovered that bending over to pick up wine bottles results in more grape juice sales, or he would have stacked them at eye level, as he does the capers.

Fuddruckers, among Romano's first creations, also tosses around the "greatest" adjective, only with more promiscuity than Eatzi's. A sign that reads "World's greatest grill cooks" hovers above the hood in the open kitchen. On the menu board near the ordering counter, the burgers--in increments of one-third, one-half, two-thirds and a full pound--are collected under the heading the "world's greatest hamburgers." Another sign says "we have a passion for beef."

Indeed they do. The beef prep area is slotted behind a window that opens to customers the world of racks of butchered beef and more racks of ground beef formed into patties. This is an aspect of showmanship that can prove to be dangerous. It brings to mind a Candid Camera-type prank once played on TV Bloopers and Practical Jokes--one of those long-running periodic specials where it's possible to watch Dick Clark's hair remain exactly the same while his face slowly evolves into creased Jell-O. The prank begins with a hapless actress who is ushered into a butcher shop to buy steaks for a barbecue. The butcher presents a live cow to her and shows her from which part of the animal her steaks would be carved. The cow is then hustled into a back room. A shot rings out, followed by the whir of a screaming saw. The woman is horror-stricken.

Watching slabs of meat being prepped into burger patties doesn't seem like it would be such a great show. And presumably at show time, one can watch all the hacking, grinding and sculpting that goes into a burger that comes in sizes larger than some small household pets. But it must be a show that people are willing to watch, because Romano's Fuddruckers concept continues to grind out cash.

As does Cozymel's Coastal Mexican Grill. Stroll into this Mexican restaurant and the first thing that hits your eye is the row of frozen-drink machines spinning blue, yellow, red and white margaritas. Move past the drink machines into the dining room and your eyes are gripped by baskets of squash and zucchini, oranges, pineapples, tomatoes, peppers and bottled water.

Showmanship is even more pronounced at Romano's Macaroni Grill. The guy expediting the plates in front of the open kitchen was wearing a white glove on his left hand. It was hard not to stare at him in anticipation of a moonwalk or a velvety falsetto.

The show gets really thick if a guest is celebrating a birthday: A server delivers a cake with a candle stick glowing in the center, empties her hands and belts out an Italian version of "Happy Birthday" in a robust operatic a cappella.

There's no singing at Nick & Sam's, but what it does have is a baby grand piano in front of the kitchen, reinforcing the notion that a restaurant is a stage and the kitchen is the engine driving the show. That engine spills into the dining room in unexpected ways. Just after placing our appetizer order, our waiter dropped by with a huge piece of meat tethered to a plate with yards of plastic wrap. He explains that this piece of meat is a 48-ounce bone-in porterhouse that can be had for about $65. Another waiter was parading around the dining room with a monstrous lobster tail welded to a plate with the same plastic-wrap acreage.

For Romano, everything is bigger than life: from flipping burgers to merchandising an expensive lobster tush. His genius is in how he squeezes it all in.


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