Carmine's: Where everything about Italy is big

If “The Godfather” and Hard Rock Café were to meet and meld into one large entertainment experience, the new Italian hotspot Carmine’s would most definitely be it. A manufactured mix of old-world charm and new-world merchandising, this Penn Quarter eatery sets out to prove that more is, well, more when it comes to Washington dining.

The restaurant, located at Seventh and E streets NW, is making its mark with a huge interior (20,000 square feet) and even larger portions of family-style Italian favorites. Carmine’s, which opened in August, seats 700 and has nine private dining rooms, but is designed as a cozy, family-friendly space, complete with dark woods, mismatched chandeliers and old black-and-white photos of what must be someone’s Italian ancestors on the walls. In its short life, it has already become a prime spot for lawmakers’ fundraisers.

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“The decor, it’s sort of 1930s-era; it’s supposed to look like it’s been open forever,” said Jeffrey Bank, chief executive officer of Carmine’s parent company, Alicart Restaurant Group, which operates four other Carmine’s locations in New York, Atlantic City and the Bahamas.

Asked what dining clientele Carmine’s hoped to capture in its new hometown, Bank said, “We really serve everybody. You have a cuisine, Italian’s the No. 1 cuisine. You have traditional fare, not nouveau. You have giant portions with incredible value.

“We felt there was just a void in the market, not so much of Italian food, but of quality value,” he added. “When someone’s looking for great value, great food, we really don’t have any competition like that. So who would eat that? Really, it’s everybody.”

Playing into the everyone’s-welcome-here ethos, there are no individual menus at Carmine’s, but instead giant lists of options on the walls.

“We don’t have menus, and the idea is you’re either going to an Italian wedding where you’ll be served large platters, or you’re like at grandma’s house on Sunday night, and your grandma’s going, ‘C’mon, you need to eat a little, you look a little skinny,’ and then feeding you these large portions,” Bank said.

Though Carmine’s avoids a chain mentality, according to Bank, grandma’s house most definitely doesn’t have merchandise available at the front of her kitchen. Here you can buy everything from T-shirts to baby bibs emblazoned with the Carmine’s logo, an odd juxtaposition to the otherwise deliberately old-school vibe of the place. 

But, as in grandma’s house, it’s not the look (or souvenirs) that’s important — it’s the food. And at Carmine’s, classic Southern Italian comfort foods like spaghetti and meatballs, calamari, lasagna and eggplant parmigiana rule the roost.

More than a dozen appetizers and antipasti share the menu board with roughly 50 entrees, and 210 specials — including rack of lamb and Osso Buco — rotate through at three per day. It’s an impressive array of pastas (pomodoro, ragu, marinara), chicken (scarpariello, marsala, saltimbocca), beef (porterhouse, pizzaiola), veal (cutlet, parmigiana) and seafood (fra diavolo, scampi), just to name a few. Deciding on what to eat can be difficult.

The lack of description of dishes on the menu boards doesn’t much help — particularly with lesser-known Italian dishes like contadina and scallopine — but the wait staff is friendly, knowledgeable and happy to answer questions and make suggestions. 

As a starter, the baked clams — stuffed with bread crumbs, oregano and an overwhelming amount of garlic — were tasty if a bit one-note. The same could not be said for the stuffed artichoke, which was overcooked and overstuffed with, again, breadcrumbs and, this time, a shocking amount of garlic. 

As one fellow diner punned, “It’s like my palate just got whacked by garlic.” It was an accurate description, since the garlic tended to deaden taste buds and lessen the flavor of any other seasoning.

The delivery of the main entrees definitely offered up the wow factor, however, as our waiter brought out two behemoth platters of food that you would see at grandma’s house only if she were feeding the Italian army.

The bolognese meat sauce over penne was, unfortunately, underwhelming and another casualty of too much garlic. The ratio of meat to tomatoes was lacking, and the penne tasted like it was out of a box as opposed to made fresh to order, as Carmine’s claims. And the garlic, oh, the garlic. Huge slices of undercooked garlic were so prevalent that a separate pile was created at the side of the plate for them.

Just when all hope was lost, though, the chicken scallopine delivered a sorely needed taste-bud punch. The thinly pounded chicken breasts, coated with bright and tangy lemon butter sauce, were delectable and a dish anyone’s grandma would serve with pride. Crusty bread and tasty focaccia helped sop up any extra sauce, since wasting something this delicious would surely warrant a slap upside the head.

Still facing a mountain of food, the dessert menu beckoned with well-known favorites like tiramisu, cannoli, chocolate torta and Italian cheesecake. The cannoli, dipped in chocolate and served chilled with powdered sugar and pistachio, were flaky and creamy. A fellow diner who has lived in Italy gave them the highest approval of authenticity.

The monumental bread pudding, nearly the size of a box of tissues with a mound of whipped cream on the side, fell flat next to its delicate cannoli dessert brethren. Overly rich, filled with chocolate and raisins, it lacked depth of flavor and was just too dense, even for an avowed bread pudding aficionado. Two bites was enough to get the gist and move on.

Sitting there clutching our stomachs, waiting for our leftovers to be wrapped in two huge shopping bags, the question arose if this was, in fact, a good deal. At a check average of $26-$27 per person, according to Bank, Carmine’s is billed as a top-quality value previously lacking in the D.C. dining scene. 

True, you get massive portions and enough leftovers for a good two to three meals after that. But it’s not a transitive food experience, a trip to Italy (or even Little Italy) through flavor, as one would hope for. Instead, it’s what is to be expected of a restaurant looking to appeal to the widest range of customers possible, and sell them T-shirts afterward. It’s a whole lot of non-threatening comfort food that sounds good to tourists, passers-by and politicos alike, with copious leftovers to spare.

In a down economy, it’s easy to see why that would be considered bang for your buck. If you’re looking for a big bang of flavor, however, that’s one souvenir you won’t take with you at Carmine’s.