I believe chains and franchises fall into a different kind of category as far as restaurants go. These restaurants do not add to the individual character of a city, they help define each American city as, well, a typical American city. It could be Houston, Bangor or Boise. It's the great homogenization of our society. As Americans travel from city to city, they recognize these same restaurants and know what to expect from them.
So with that in mind, I also believe that when reviewed, the approach must be with a more critical eye than when reviewing uniquely local restaurants. Granted, many franchise owners are local: living, working and giving back to the communities that support their establishments. So why should they be held to a higher critical standard, especially when compared to other sole-proprietor restaurants? It's because chains have an advantage over a sole proprietor. Chains have the power of a corporation behind them. After years of refinement, the original restaurant is duplicated, from the interior decoration to the menu items to the training manuals for the waitstaff.
Now, getting down off my high horse, I must say Carrabba's Italian Grill is a pretty fine addition to our community, even if it is imported from somewhere else. The first Carrabba's was opened by founders Johnny Carrabba and Damian Mandolain in Houston, Texas, in 1986. Seeing the photos on the wall of the restaurant or watching their PBS cooking series, Cucina Amore, you can tell these Texan-Sicilian boys love to eat. But I was still a little wary. Carrabba's Italian Grill is opening up restaurants almost as fast as Starbucks. Maybe they're planning on being the upscale McDonalds of Italian food or trying to give Olive Garden a run for its money.
So on a rainy night, a friend and I went there to eat. What was good? Everything. We started with a dirty martini and a cosmopolitan. We munched on a hot mini-loaf of bread with a house blend of herbs and olive oil for dipping it in while we waited for our appetizer, the antipasti platter that came with an assortment of calamari, mozzarella marinara and the bruschetta of the day. The calamari was lightly battered with a nice balance of rings and heads and whetted our appetite for more. Our next course was Mama Mandola's spicy chicken soup with a sprinkle of Romano cheese. While not particularly spicy, it was hearty:pieces of chicken, vegetables and small pasta floated in a rich broth. The menu claimed the soup "has soothed the generations" and we understood why. It seemed as if the recipe was taken right out of an Italian grandmother's personal recipe file.
The entrees arrived and they were scrumptious. We polished off the veal piccatta with mushrooms, prosciutto in a lemon-butter sauce and a side of steamed broccoli. But the Rigatoni Martino--grilled chicken tossed with rigatoni, sun-dried tomatoes and ricotta salata cheese in a tomato cream sauce--was so huge, we only managed to finish half of it. We washed it down with a glass of wine and were stuffed, but not too stuffed for dessert. We shared an order of tiramisu, the Cadillac of desserts. I often find that many restaurants make their tiramisu too sweet, but not Carrabba's. It was creamy and delicious.
Unlike many chains and franchises that try to pack in as many tables as possible to maximize revenue, Carrabba's has booths and tables that offer ample room to spread out so that you don't feel cramped or claustrophobic or as if the next table over can hear your every word. Tough as it is for me to admit, I would have to say that Carrabba's is one of the better Italian restaurant chains growing right now.
--Bingo Barnes can't believe he ate the whole thing.