Food Feature: Stuffed at Roasted

Italian fare and to-go boxes aplenty at The Roasted Garlic

The to-go boxes are the big tip-off. There's a stack of them on nearly every table in the restaurant. You know when you walk into The Roasted Garlic you won't be leaving hungry. Located in a small strip mall, tucked away from Alpharetta's army of chain restaurants, this Italian-Greek spot has won the devotion of the area's families with gargantuan portions and a relaxed, lively vibe. The waits on a weekday night would make many an in-town restaurant envious.

We slide in without reservations around 7 p.m. on a Tuesday night just before the crowd hits. The smiling hostess steers us through the bustling dining room to the last available table. There's a wall of family portraits straight out of a scene from Moonstruck. Heart-shaped wicker baskets and similar knick-knacks line the shelves. Dads crane their necks to watch the game on the TV in the small bar across the room. A covered patio filled with long tables is designed to accommodate rowdy children and their besieged parents.

Like the restaurant's name, the menu is sprinkled with familiar ingredients that have become synonymous with gussied-up Italian-American cuisine: pesto cream sauces, caramelized onions, fire-roasted peppers and balsamic vinaigrette each appear in multiple dishes.

We start with a salad of field greens, fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and portabella mushrooms drizzled with fig balsamic vinegar and estate-bottled olive oil ($8.50). When brought out, the dish covers a third of our table. We eat about a quarter of it. "Would you like me to box that?" asks a busboy. I wonder how many times he repeats that a night. Our server pulls a spare chair up to the table and puts our boxed salad on it. The take-home stack has begun.

There's a permanent list of dinner specials that lists so many ingredients for each dish, it could win a prize for the longest descriptions ever printed on a menu. The servers rattle off a similar spiel of specials like well-rehearsed audition monologues. Some of these long-winded dishes turn out to be textbook examples from the school of kitchen sink cooking.

Case in point: A server-recited special featuring duck breast ($18) turns out to be a dark mishmash of ingredients that have no cohesive reason for being on the same plate. The duck is served with chunks of unmelted Fontina cheese and basil tucked between each slice, over slightly undercooked asiago and oregano tortelloni tossed in a healthy dousing of olive oil with crimini and oyster mushrooms, caramelized radishes, little cubes of pancetta, grana padano cheese and a grilled piece of sausage thrown in for good measure. I'm drained just looking at it.

Fortunately, other meat dishes hit the bull's eye. I've never seen venison ($15) given the parmigiana treatment before, but it's fork tender (as the menu promises) and marries well with mozzarella and tomato basil sauce. Another night, I try Mike's grilled pork tenderloin ($14), a huge portion served with an herbed Chianti sauce, crispy roasted potatoes, grilled zucchini and, like the special, a bonus portion of sausage.

The Roasted Garlic's classic Italian dishes are well executed and less fussy. A pasta dish of large shells with broccoli, sundried tomatoes and mushrooms tossed in a roasted garlic butter ($8.50) has a simple, satisfying balance of flavors and heats up well for lunch the next day. Austin's lasagna ($6.50) — most of the dishes on the menu are named for members of the owners' extended families — is a straightforward cheesefest with chunks of sausage, eggplant and zucchini tucked amongst the noodles.

The only example of size restraint we find on the menu is a too-tiny chunk of feta in an otherwise generous tapa ($4.95) of grilled bread served with meltingly soft, sweet cloves of roasted garlic, a half-round of roasted tomato and a scattering of olives.

Service here is warm and efficient, a reflection of the hands-on owners who can be seen around the dining room greeting regulars and pitching favorite dishes with effusive hand gestures. The food is consistent and our courses come out in well-timed intervals, surprising considering how busy the restaurant can get. One server in particular, a blond Bulgarian woman named Galia, has a contagious laugh and somehow entices us to split a dessert, despite the fact that everyone at the table ate half or less of their entrees.

We settle on handmade rum balls ($4.50), a house specialty, which arrive at the table floating in a carton-sized portion of rum raisin ice cream and circled with whipped cream sprayed from a can. The boozy little confections remind me of Christmas cookies, soft and fudgy and rolled in powdered sugar. The rest of the dessert is just plain overkill. We eat the rum balls and decide against a to-go box for the ice cream.??

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