Friday, September 17, 2010

Go Big or Go Home: Carmine's

I recently mentioned that it’s been a rough summer, waistline speaking. Every time I make a concerted effort to get back on track, some event, or series of, sweeps in and ruins my progress. I know – willpower. But when Jill Collins, the mastermind behind Carmine’s local PR campaign, invites you to dine on comped delicious Italian goodies from the DC version of the famous NYC kitchen, what's a girl to do?! There is no such thing as willpower. The lady knows how to market her product, and her product is pretty darned good.

Needless to say, Carmine’s did no wonders for the aforementioned plans to shape up on my caloric consumption habits (I keep wondering how they have a location in the bikini-clad Bahamas, but then I remember how reasonable the prices are for feeding families). When heaping of trays of Eggplant Parmigiana, Linguine with Clams, and Tiramisu come floating your way, again, what’s a girl to do? Look, in the words of Ms. Collins, Carmine’s is not here to win any James Beard awards. It is, however, honest and tasty fare. It's interesting how the timing worked, with this post directly following one about another Italian restaurant, Chicago's Cibo Matto. The two could not be more different, but each has their niche.

Though I was prepared for gargantuan portions of pasta and protein at Carmines, I was not prepared for the refreshing Carmine's salad, their zesty version of an Italian chopped. Good stuff - especially the vibrant roma tomato halves. Immediately thereafter, I found myself again refreshingly surprised, by the Eggplant Parmigiana. This was a unique interpretation of the dish, more of a loaf, with razor thin layers of sauteed eggplant, parmesan, and a robust red sauce - each component flavor held its own in the dish. The best bite of the night.

Let me just say, for future reference, that it may be a good idea to stop here; the salad and eggplant alone would have been enough food for a small army. Plus, these two dishes were both stellar. Our table, however, soldiered on. We ordered two pastas, the rigatoni country style and clams linguine, and an entree, the veal saltimbocca. The pastas were pretty standard, there as fillers, allowing the proteins to shine a little brighter. The rigatoni, I prefer with simple broccoli, garlic, and oil.  Instead of the linguine, I would lean towards a different noodle style, spaghetti and meatballs - again, the protein being the key. The saltimbocca, with prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and brown sauce, was great. I also enjoyed the classic veal scallopine that I tried for an earlier lunch.

Desserts were not my favorite, but were not to be missed with the stuffing ourselves meal theme. Carmine's version of tiramisu focuses on whipped cream rather than lady fingers and espresso, likely for purposes of lightening up after an unavoidably filling meal. I liked the chocolate in the bread pudding we tried, but the addition of raisins took me a bit off guard. One, or the other; probably not both. These recipes have stood the test of time in the NYC location though, so if you have folks with sweet tooths in tow, I'm sure your party will find one of the various sugar offerings agreeable (cheesecake, anyone?!).

After all of this food, the total for our party came to approximately thirty-one bucks a person, with leftovers (and a GS-salaried bureaucrat lunch party of the same size dined for $12 a person, with tip, earlier in the week). Not bad. As I noted, Carmine's is not going to be the perfect meal for all occasions and all people, but it does serve its niche, and well. Taking price, cuisine, and ambiance into account, it's a desirable and convenient locale for several types of occasions. Here's a few: business luncheon for the slightly less buttoned-up crowd (lots of private rooms are available) - check;  hungry, picky, and cheap relatives are in town - check; you are downtown with the stroller and light-up shoe crowd - check; afternoon football viewing with a hungry group (TVs in the bar) - check. Also of note, bring your gluten-free, vegan, and allergenic friends too; Carmine's has special menus for each. I guess what I'm saying is that this place will never be a foodie destination; it will, however, serve as a destination for hungry folks looking for a consistency, value, and a tasty meal.

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