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Macaroni's Ristorante and Martino's Lounge warm up the patio

Minestrone. Ravioli. Shrimp scampi. Eggplant Parmesan. These dishes recall a bygone era, when Italian food signified the exotic in small town America.

Well-worn recipes aside, there’s new significance in establishments such as Macaroni’s and Martino’s in Ashland. Surprisingly, their specialties still seem well, special eaten in a discreet back alley, screened by brick walls festooned with faux frescos. Heaters warm the atmosphere slightly in winter, and the overall effect recently warmed my heart.

Adjacent to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for more than two decades, Macaroni’s Ristorante relied on classic Italian American cuisine while the second-story Martino’s Lounge proved popular with after-theater crowds. Now that the OSF campus is practically deserted, the business owned by Marty Morlan is striving mightily to reassert its presence.

Weekly specials are welcome additions to Macaroni’s standbys, inviting diners to the brick courtyard behind the restaurant at 58 E. Main St. There’s also more exposed balcony seating overlooking Ashland’s downtown. For anyone still sticking to the comforts of home, Macaroni’s offers online ordering and makes its own deliveries. Or pick up at the restaurant.

A short stroll on a chilly evening piqued my appetite for the range of pasta, pizza and other bread-based dishes making up the majority of Macaroni’s menu. The restaurant has adapted to changing dietary preferences by offering gluten-free pasta and pizza crust.

Practically powerless to resist pasta, I decided first to sample a cup of Macaroni’s minestrone ($4) and the lighter of the menu’s two antipasti: “scampi con lemon” ($12). Content to share the appetizer, my partner skipped salad, which numbered just two: Caesar or mixed greens, each in small, medium or large sizes ($6 to $15).

Had the new specials debuted, I would have ordered a starter of smoked Gouda arancini, served with tomato-basil sauce ($10.50). Often made from leftover risotto, these stuffed, breaded and fried-rice balls are even harder than pasta for me to refuse.

And don’t get me started on eggplant Parmesan. I’m a purist who relishes my own recipe when garden globes are in season, or when I can substitute locally grown eggplant. But I’d endured months of deprivation and, spying Macaroni’s version ($14.50), couldn’t forgo an eggplant fix.

My partner predictably selected the other dish I strongly favored. Macaroni’s smoked salmon ravioli ($17.50) bathe in basil-rose sauce mingled with mushrooms. In similar style, Macaroni’s recent entree special marries cheese tortellini with prawns, scallops and smoked salmon ($18). Macaroni’s most basic pasta dishes, spaghetti marinara and fettuccine Alfredo, cost $12 each.

For anyone less enamored of pasta, there’s “Pollo Martino,” grilled chicken breast, served with lemon-roasted potatoes, garlic spinach and red pepper pesto ($17). Chicken is an alternate preparation of the classic Parmesan ($15).

Vegetables defined the minestrone, including its broth, described as “rich tomato.” Lacking beef or even chicken stock, apparently, this version of the staple Italian soup was lighter than others I’ve tried.

I likely would have enjoyed the minestrone more at a hotter temperature, but it was immediately apparent that our food’s heat would rapidly dissipate once our server started the ascent of Macaroni’s back stairs to Martino’s patio level. Our glasses of Elk Cove dry rose and Kriselle Cellars sauvignon blanc ($9) at least maintained the proper temperatures.

The wines were delicious complements to the scampi, consisting of six commendably sized shrimp in a spot-on lemon-white wine sauce swimming with grape tomatoes, garlic and basil. We eagerly sopped up all the juices with slices of crusty white bread.

Hardly sated on carbohydrates, I always prefer a side of pasta with eggplant Parmesan, and Macaroni’s impressed me with fettuccini that was lightly sauced and just bland enough to let the plate’s main attraction shine through.

The eggplant was rich, in hearty slices cooked until fork tender, not soggy, with the all-too-important skin intact for textural contrast. Mozzarella oozed slightly over the top in a judicious layer. My partner asked to swap plates before I was satisfied, and I only hoped it would come back with a few more bites.

Although its presentation was more muddled than the eggplant’s, the ravioli composed one of the most intensely flavored restaurant dishes we’d experienced in some time. The juxtaposition of smoky fish, three cheeses, savory mushrooms and cream-enhanced marinara captured and held our interest, despite somewhat homogenous textures on the plate.

We debated dessert, theorizing we may only have the fortitude for a few bites before taking home the remainder. Our server, however, clarified that portions weren’t “huge,” and that we’d likely summon enough stomach capacity for housemade lemon ricotta cheesecake ($8). Other choices were tiramisu ($8), chocolate “mud pie” ($7.25), gluten-free chocolate torte ($7) and three types of ice cream and sorbet.

Creamy, yet stopping short of decadence, with just the right lemony tang, the cheesecake made a compelling case for finishing. While puddles of berry puree attractively encircled the dessert, two tuiles impaling it were visually superfluous and didn’t add much texture or taste.

Tube-style heaters cozied up to our table helped to cast the setting in a nostalgic glow — and Macaroni’s and Martino’s in their best light. Reserve an outdoor table by calling 541-488-4420. See the menu and order takeout at martinosashland.com. Hours are 4:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. daily.

Tempo Tidbits

Larks’ chefs are thinking “inside the box” for their annual Chocolate Makers’ Wine Dinner.

The Oregon Chocolate Festival invites guests to prepare at home and partake in a chocolate-themed meal the first weekend of March. The Chocolate Maker’s Sweet & Savory Provision Box can be ordered online for $75, which affords free access to this year’s virtual festival.

Recipes and ingredients for MaraNatha Peanut Butter-Chocolate Bars and Double Chocolate-Pistachio-Cardamom Cookies are included, featuring Scharffen Berger chocolate and locally produced MaraNatha peanut butter. Cocoa nibs and orange season duck leg confit from Larks, which also dusts hazelnuts in chocolate for its field greens salad with roasted vegetables, dried cranberries and sherry vinaigrette. A chocolate brownie and fleur de sel tartlets conclude the meal for two, which also boasts Rise Up! rosemary ciabatta bread, a bottle of RoxyAnn Winery merlot and a Wildwood Chocolate bar, judged last year’s best in show.

Explore the box’s contents while trying new recipes and watching — at your own pace — demonstrations by popular chocolatiers, food artisans, mixologists, sommeliers and more. See oregonchocolatefestival.com/chocolate-makers-dinner and choose pickup at Larks in Ashland the evening of March 5 or 6.

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Pair cocktails and cheese with New Port Distilling and The Oregon Cheese Cave.

The duo plan their next event from 3 to 5 p.m. March 14 in the large, open-air hanger at New Port, 201 Bateman Drive, Central Point. Cost is $40.

Four half-cocktails prepared by New Port’s proprietors complement a guided pairing with four cheese “amuse-bouches.” The Oregon Cheese Cave in Phoenix also offers with each ticket a “grazing plate,” including crackers, for two. The theme is celebrating — or surviving — one year of the coronavirus pandemic in Southern Oregon.

Seatings are very limited and available only with prepaid reservation. Email Melodie Picard at roguecheesequeen@gmail.com

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Wednesdays are for wellness at Medford Food Co-op’s cafe.

Made-to-order salads, smoothies and “wellness elixirs” are 10% off every Wednesday at The Cafe at Medford Food Co-op, 945 S. Riverside Ave. Enhanced with locally made Herb Pharm tinctures, “wellness elixirs” include the black elderberry toddy, lavender lemonade, maca mocha, “golden milk” and “cold-busting” hot chocolate, priced from $3 to $6 for 16 ounces.

See the menu medfordfood.coop/cafe. The Cafe is open for takeout from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays. Call 541-646-3686.

Lavender lemonade is one of the “wellness elixirs” at The Cafe at Medford Food Co-op. Photo courtesy of Medford Food Co-op.

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Have a Tempo tidbit to share? Email news about the local dining, food and beverage scene to: thewholedish@gmail.com

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Sarah Lemon has relished the Rogue Valley’s dining scene for nearly two decades as one of the original contributors to Tempo’s dining column. Her palate has helped to judge some of the region’s culinary competitions and festivals. The former editor of A la Carte, the Mail Tribune’s weekly food section, she writes a biweekly column, The Whole Dish, and blogs and podcasts under the same name. Listen at mailtribune.com/podcasts and read more at mailtribune.com/lifestyle/the-whole-dish. Follow @the.whole. dish on Instagram, @thewholedish on Twitter or see facebook.com/thewholedish.

Eggplant Parmesan comes with fettuccine Alfredo at Macaroni’s Ristorante in Ashland. Photos by Sarah Lemon
The back patio at Macaroni’s has heaters in winter.{ }