Carl Howard gestures to a tray of Fazoli's menu items — intricate dishes, he says, with lots of ingredients and improved sauces, tough to duplicate at home.
Here was mezzaluna ravioli with a creamy marsala sauce, chicken marsala with fresh mushrooms, sausage pasta with broccoli. They are served on real plates, and accompanied with a manager who brings and takes your dishes and makes sure your meal is going well — all in a no-tip atmosphere.
"We're trying to provide a $10 to $15 experience for $6 to $7 dollars," Howard said.
This all happened during the first hour after Lexington-based Fazoli's reopened its store in the Idle Hour shopping center on Richmond Road. Howard, Fazoli's president and CEO since 2008, was making the first of three restaurant visits scheduled for Wednesday.
The Idle Hour restaurant was closed in July because of electrical problems. It reopened Wednesday, with a red and taupe color palate, video signs and a first customer right after the doors opened.
Jason Dominguez dug into spaghetti carbonara as he was plied with the chain's signature garlic breadsticks and samples of its pumpkin swirl cheesecake.
"When they closed, I was sad," Dominguez said. "I'm across the street. This is one of the most accessible places, and I love Fazoli's."
Howard said it was tougher to love Fazoli's when he took over in 2008. The tomato sauces were subpar, he said, and the alfredo sauce watery. Diners came in to eat, saw that they could make something similar at home and never returned, he said.
Hence Fazoli's started making changes — including improved food such as the dishes that Howard dissected as the Idle Hour store filled up with customers. Detail-oriented, he commented on everything, including the sound level of the music — Italian pop and Frank Sinatra — and the dining room's temperature.
Howard, a restaurant management veteran who has worked in barbecue and casual Asian, arrived five years ago with a goal to make the 227-restaurant Fazoli's a threat to Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse and Applebee's. His goal was to make Fazoli's a family dinner option that wasn't traditional fast food and offered some variety in its menu.
He said he's excited about the Fazoli's initiatives to let a new generation of food lovers customize their food by picking sauces, adding proteins such as meatballs or chicken and offering a cheese-selection station.
The chain is testing a new concept it has dubbed Ventitré (which means "23" in Italian) in Baltimore and a Virginia restaurant to be announced. The idea is that the customer gets to customize his or her meal: pasta, bread, protein and cheese. The "23" refers to the number of fresh toppings available.
Howard says the concept might attract the next generation of restaurant customers, who have grown up more educated about food choices and not content to simply point to a picture or title on a menu. He said he hopes to eventually try out the new style of restaurants in Lexington and Louisville.
A test to serve beer and wine to Fazoli's patrons was shut down, Howard said. He said alcohol didn't sell especially well, and there was concern about alcohol affecting the family atmosphere.
At Fazoli's, even the simpler dishes have their devotees. On Tuesday, Howard himself dug into its spaghetti with meat sauce.
He said it's just really tasty.
Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.