(In my previous post , I had mentioned going to Carmine’s Restaurant on the eve of the NYC Triathlon. This is an account of our experience there.)
Carmine’s is located in the Theater District at 200 W.44th St. and styles itself as Carmine’s Legendary Family Style Italian Restaurant . The name says it all. Carmine’s has been around for ages and continues to prosper while others such as Mama Leone’s have shut their doors long ago. It is a family style restaurant , meaning that most of the diners are large groups eating together and the food is served family style , in large platters meant to be shared by diners. Portions are abundant . No , scratch that … Portions are enormous , mindblowingly large , HUGE.
Carmine’s is spread over two levels and seems to be always packed . When we got there at 7:30 on a Saturday evening , there was a crowd of would- be diners without reservations milling about on the sidewalk and a line waiting to get in . Luckily for our party of 17 , we had reservations and were escorted to the upper floor and seated at a long table . Around us were other large groups , all having a good time ,the noise was a dull roar that echoed off the walls. Definitely not the place for a quiet conversation .
I can’t tell you much about the decor at Carmine’s except that the lighting is rather dim and the walls have blown of photographs of vaguely familiar worthies , presumably Italian -American. The menu is spelled out on wall mounted blackboards spread all around the dining room. It is the sort of food that your Italian grandmother(if you were lucky enough to have one , that is ) would put out for you on a Sunday afternoon. Indeed that is the ambience that Carmine’s seems to cultivate and it succeeds.
Large groups of diners have to pre-order their family style repast and so it was with us . For our party of seventeen , the food was brought out in large platters , two sometimes three of them depending on the course. To start out with , there were complimentary bread baskets ( foccacia , sourdough rolls , bread sticks). The bread was very good and I dug in , instantly forgetting my resolution to not stuff myself before the meal arrived. Why , oh why do they make the bread so tempting ?
We had barely time to sip our drinks when the food started arriving . Service at Carmine’s is nothing if not efficient. First were platters of Fried Calamari , perfectly fried and seasoned . Heedless of what else was to come , I took a second helping consoling myself that I was saving stomach space and calories by passing on the marinara sauce. Next a refreshing salad , judiciously moistened with an oil and vinegar dressing. Too many places drown their salad in vinaigrette , not Carmine’s. For the vegetable course , we had broiled portabella mushroom caps and broccoli spears , both dishes cooked to perfection , the broccoli al dente and the mushroom caps barely firm . The pasta course that followed consisted of two dishes : Penne Pomo Doro and Rigatoni with Broccoli and Sausage in a delicate white sauce. I confined myself to the latter which was probably the best dish we had all night.
There were three main courses : Shrimp Fra Diavolo , Chicken Marsala and Eggplant Parmigiana. The Shrimp Fra Diavolo was a big disappointment , the sauce undistinguished and the shrimp large, but overcooked and tough . The Chicken Marsala came in a muddy brown sauce with sliced mushrooms and it didn’t look appetizing . It was not a dish I usually go for and I hadn’t eaten it in years but one spoonful and I was hooked. The marsala sauce was winy and delicious and the chicken tender ; I helped myself to more. I didn’t try the eggplant parmigiana but it looked ordinary ; those who tasted it confirmed my opinion.
We wound up the meal with a dessert sampler ( Bread pudding , Tartuffi , chocolate covered cannoli , tiramisu and red grapes ) and coffee. The bread pudding, I was told ,was excellent . I wouldn’t know because I stuck to the tartuffi ( very good ) and the tiramisu ( Okay).
Reviews of Carmine’s fall into two diametrically opposite camps . Some label it a tourist trap , with overpriced, very ordinary food and indifferent service.Others rave about it saying it’s the best Italian restaurant they’ve ever visited and vowing to go there again . In my experience , Carmine’s falls somewhere between those two extremes. The food consists of hearty Italian favorites , plain food like your nonna would cook for you. It is not fancy but it is generally well prepared ( except for a few failures like the Shrimp Fra Diavolo) and it is plentiful. Oh boy , is it plentiful. Be aware that most platters are enough for two very hearty eaters or three ordinary ones. Carmine’s seems to subscribe to the idea of serving huge portions and charging accordingly . Most dishes are between $ 25 and $ 35 , not unreasonable considering the quantity of food . We , as a large party , were charged per person and served pre-selected dishes of our choice from the menu. We were barely able to eat one-third of the food put before us and the rest went to waste because we were staying in a hotel and couldn’t take it away with us . I still feel guilty when I think of the amount of food that had to be discarded that night . Bottom line : Be careful when you order.
As I’ve said at the beginning of the post , going to Carmine’s is like going to your nonna ‘s house for Sunday dinner . The atmosphere is noisy but homey and comfortable . You’ll have a good time . I know we did .