During the part three weeks, I have had the pleasant experience of dining at Carrabba’s at two locations in Tampa, Florida. I have also visited venues of the same chain on the east coast of Florida in Vero Beach. Each and every one of these experiences has been successful and a treat. I am not that much of a fussy eater, but wife Joan has definite standards with regard to restaurants.
Some three weeks ago, we joined eight people with whom we had worked at the Florida Department of Revenue. One woman had retired, was now living with her husband in Texas and was back in Tampa for a visit. Another woman was taking courses to become a teacher and the rest were still employed with the state. We agreed to meet at the Carrabba’s on 56th Street in Temple Terrace at 6:30 P.M. on a Friday evening. The restaurant does not accept reservations, especially on a weekend evening, but it does offer a “call-ahead” service whereby one can call, request the name be placed on the list and, by the time one gets to the restaurant, there is likely no wait.
When most of our party was in attendance, we were taken to our table, a round large table which would easily accommodate ten people. The restaurant has an ambiance that is designed to be friendly. Its lighting is subdued, the wait staff extremely friendly without being familiar. The room abounds with Italian ceramics, black and white photographs of a family I guess is that of the founders, and odds and ends. The operation is obviously well-oiled and well run by a management who cares. (Parenthetically, the identical atmosphere – but not the identical furnishings or layout – have been in evidence whenever we have visited any of the restaurants.)
While we waited for the remaining members of the party, our waiter took a drink order and brought very warm, fresh, crusty bread, along with several dishes with spices which he mixed with olive oil. We devoured, almost inhaled, the bread, dipping each thick slice in the oil. By the time our party was complete, a new basket of bread had been brought and has disappeared.
I asked for a glass of Chianti and was brought a carafe with the equivalent of two glasses. Joan, because she was the chosen driver for our trip home, choose iced tea. (It is said that many marriages among those later in years remain because only one partner can drive at night.) Oh, that wine went so well with the bread and spiced oil that I might have been talked into a couple of cups of coffee and a nap. One couple shared a carafe of what I knew, from past visits, to be excellent sangria, made with brandy, fresh fruit and house wine. They ordered the “red” version whereas, since I am known to dribble occasionally, often choose the “white” made with a house pinot grigio. The cost of the wine is fair, roughly in the $5 – $8 range, depending. The drinks, like the food, are not skimpy.
The menus are large and comprehensive. While they do vary among the restaurants as to side dishes, basics are always present. Among the orders chosen by our friends were the signature chicken dish named for the founder’s mother, Pollo Rosa Maria, grilled chicken breast stuffed with fontina cheese and prosciutto, topped with mushrooms and a basil lemon butter sauce. Two of our party ordered the grilled salmon, another treat with which I am familiar. Again, prices are reasonable, in the $8 – $16 range for most entrees.
Whenever Joan visits Carrabba’s, she always orders the Cozze In Bianco, a large bowl of mussels from Prince Edward Island steamed in white wine, basil, lemon butter and garlic, lots of garlic! This is designed to be an appetizer, but with a salad and bread, it is a whole meal. I, on the other hand, have tried most of the dishes on the menu but keep coming back to one of two pasta dishes. This time, I choose the spaghettiwith meat sauce, homemade meatballs and Italian sausage. True to form, some ended on my shirt, possibly because of a second carafe of Chianti that somehow appeared at my elbow.
(Does everyone have this problem? If a waiter asks, “Would you like another?”, I cannot tell a lie. The answer is in the affirmative. Of course, if the server would have asked, “Should I bring you another?”, I would have answered, “No, thank you.”)
By this time, we were pleasantly and totally stuffed. The food was great, the company fine and we parted after making plans to do this again. The bill for the two of us, including my wine, was $42.00.
Two weeks later, we made plans on meeting two other couples for dinner. One of the others suggested the Carrabba’s in Carrollwood, at the north end of Tampa. I did not need any encouragement to agree!
This restaurant is at the end of a strip store complex but designed to look like a neighborhood restaurant in southern Italy. There are tables and wrought iron chairs outside; unfortunately, the only view is of the parking lot, but the effort was unanticipated and fine. Inside, the restaurant is large. All of the Carrabba’s that we have visited have had a long counter facing the kitchen and food preparation areas. One of these days, I intend to sit there where the aromas mix and fill the air.
On this visit, we again eagerly reached for the bread and oil as soon as it was brought, all in spite of promising ourselves that we would leave room, perhaps for cannoli with espresso at the end.
Joan, again and predictably, ordered the mussels; I had my other favorite pasta dish, Linguine Pescatore, a large bowl of linguine with substantial amounts of shrimp, scallops and mussels all tossed with spicy marinara sauce. As usual, I asked that the sauce be extra-spicy and was accommodated.
One of our friends had eggplant layered with basil, mozzarella and Romano cheese and baked with a testy tomato sauce, served with rigatoni. Another ordered Chicken Parmesan, which came with garlic mashed potatoes, spaghetti and veggies. His wife choose another favorite, Veal Marsalatopped with mushrooms, prosciutto and a rich Marsala wine sauce.
True to form, none of could even think of dessert and, in fact, several of our company requested boxes to take the next day’s lunch home.
Carrabba’s Italian Grill is, now, part of the “Outback” chain, with over 200 stores. This is a chain that has truly succeeded by virtue of excellent food, a professional staff and reasonable family-friendly prices. Wherever one goes in the 30 plus states that have this restaurant, a fine Italian meal, free of pretense, awaits.
And have the spaghetti and a carafe of wine.