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Bigger isn't better at Carmine's on Penn

By the time our entrees arrived at Carmine's on Penn, I had a nearly irrepressible urge to turn to the next table -- a gaggle of beefy men who'd just sat down -- and explain that we three relatively normal-sized women had not come in to eat like pigs. We'd just been led astray.

Our confident server had known the chalkboard menu through and through, and had offered a good spiel on the dishes -- which had no written descriptions -- using colorful and euphemistic adjectives, even making a couple of jokes. We'd liked her immediately, and she'd played off that goodwill to encourage us as we ordered an antipasti plate, another appetizer and two entrees. Suspecting that we'd gone too far, we asked for half portions -- but she told us, apologetically, that the kitchen just couldn't do that. "Besides, I don't think you'll have too much food," she'd said with a warm grin. "You'll just have a little left over. You know, just enough for lunch tomorrow."

I realize now that she'd offered up the most expensive dishes on the menu when we'd asked her to list her favorites, upselling the three dumb girls who hadn't been to Carmine's in years and didn't remember that one plate of food is enough to feed a party of pubescent boys. And we bit, hook, line and sinker.

Carmine's on Penn favors quantity over quality.
mark manger
Carmine's on Penn favors quantity over quality.

Location Info

Map

Carmine's on Penn

92 S. Pennsylvania St.
Denver, CO 80209

Category: Restaurant > Italian

Region: South Denver

Details

Carmine's on PennAntipasti misti $18.95Minestrone $16.95Frutti di mare $45.95Special ravioli $12.95Chicken Montana $37.95Veal Marsala $39.95Side pasta marinara $9.95
92 South Pennsylvania
303-777-6443
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5-9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, Sunday

On a Tuesday night, even though the dining room was far from full, we'd been seated on the patio that's sealed against the elements by heavy canvas with plastic cut-out windows. We'd nursed glasses of wine while trying hard not to listen to the conversation of the couple three tables away, and picked at the basket of shiny, uniformly sized rolls, infused with garlic and salt and suspiciously reminiscent of the Schwan's dinner bread my mom used to pull out of the freezer and bake before we knew that all food is not created equal and that real, fresh bread is so much better than the additive-laden processed version. Carmine's homemade garlic rolls were once legendary; these were immediately forgettable.

But the rolls seemed brilliant compared to the rancid-tasting dry salami and mushy Grana Padano-stuffed fried olives on the antipasti plate. We skipped those for the crispy wisps of fried zucchini and prosciutto-wrapped mozzarella balls, which were like licking the inside of a plastic container -- but at least seemed fresh. We'd abandoned our other appetizer entirely. A nightly special of housemade ravioli stuffed with mascarpone cheese, caramelized onion and pear, the six stuffed pockets were like a health nut's brown-sugared oatmeal: lumpy, and imbued with a hint of sweetness more suggestive than actually there -- a fairly incredible feat, given the rich ingredients the kitchen had started with. At least the ravioli had been garnished with crunchy, pan-fried sage leaves, the best thing we'd been served so far.

"Maybe if we drink more, it'll get better," one of my friends had whispered.

"Maybe if we ask to move to the bar, they'll bring us a bowl of these fried leaves and we can call it a night," I'd replied.

Too late. Our entrees arrived while piles of food from our first courses still littered the table. The delivery was made by a team of four black-shirted waiters, a couple bearing serving utensils and a water pitcher, another presumably there to spot the poor guy who'd been tasked with hoisting the platter-laden tray, knees practically buckling under the weight of our two entrees as he tottered to a stop in front of a tray jack by our table and gave his load a controlled heave. While we stared, slack-jawed, at the massive mounds of pasta, he plated dinner for us, twirling little nests of marinara-covered linguini onto each plate next to dainty lumps of ziti. As he put those very normal-sized portions of food before us, we couldn't help but notice that he'd barely made a dent in the dishes we were supposed to be sharing, family-style. We could have shared family-style with the entire restaurant and we'd probably still have leftovers.

Ignoring the mountains of food that waited, we faced down our dinners and dug in. The linguini had been our pasta base of choice (we also could have ordered spaghetti or ziti) for the highly recommended frutti di mare, a tomato sauce swimming with mussels, clams, calamari, scallops, shrimp and striped bass. Swimming with very old mussels, clams, calamari, scallops, shrimp and striped bass. We spit out our first bites of shellfish, which tasted sickeningly fishy; when we cautiously tried again, we found the calamari and shrimp so overcooked that they were like chewing rubber bands. The dish was so bad it didn't matter that the sauce, which we'd requested spicy, carried not even a breath of heat; the devil himself could not have made us eat more.

The chicken Montana was better -- but that wasn't saying much. Chewy sun-dried tomatoes, glistening stalks of asparagus and overcooked strips of chicken had been tossed into gummable ziti and then topped with what was supposedly Gorgonzola cream sauce. We couldn't taste much cheese, but we had no problem identifying the salt, butter and cream that overwhelmed everything else.

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32 comments
Ahoymate
Ahoymate

Just who paid off this reviewer for the hatchet fest on Carmines? What didnt she get a comped meal when she told the manager she was a Westword foody? I have been a long time customer, literally eaten there over 100 times..........never had this experience, not even close. The article long hatchet job makes me believe there is something else going on........hummmmm? With all the constant complaining and whinning in the article, Ms. Shunk is likely an angry, single, middle age woman on the downward slide of her life and career.....or simply needs to get a real life!

Jimbo
Jimbo

I forgot one VERY important point about Larura's review! At the beginning of the article, she calls the group of men at the table next to her as "a gaggle of beefy men" AKA group of overweight / fat men! Then classifies herself and her friends as "three relatively normal-sized women had not come in to eat like pigs"! Her massive ego and overblown sense of self importance is obvious. Couple that with her seething hatred of anyone different, is a perfect example of her "elitist" condescending attitude toward Carmines on Penn or anything she deems as "below" her. Again, shame on you Larua and shame on Westword for publishing such obvious drivel.

Jimbo
Jimbo

This reviewer must have an axe to grind. My family and I have been frequentiing Carmines for over 10 years and have NEVER had a meal like the one described by Laura! It is very unfortunate in this "electronic" day and age, when it enables someone with obvious bias to voice such a tirade, laced with overt malice and animosity! Shame on you Laura!

objective reviewer
objective reviewer

The review mirrors our experience. It started when my wife and I had a rare night out on the town without three kids in tow. We had agreed to a babysitting swap with friends. It was kind of last minute so I had little chance to make a reservation in advance. In fact, I’m talking the Friday before our Saturday evening out. I first tried our usual staples- McCormick & Schmick, Bonefish Grill and Maggianos. All of them were booked for 5-5:30, our required start time. Then I had a thought, what about Carmine’s on Penn? I knew it had been around a long time. I recalled hearing great things about it. Almost a Denver institution. So I called and to my amazement, there was no problem getting a reservation for 5:30 on Saturday. When we arrived, the place was virtually empty. We were immediately seated in the enclosed patio. The table my wife and I shared was large. Not something you’d want if you were looking for cozy. I don’t think there were a lot of options for that. The waiter was friendly and knowledgeable. We needed his knowledge because the blackboard menu was worthless (i.e., doesn’t impart any information). After a dizzying array of possibilities, we asked about the house favorite. It was Chicken Montana. We ordered that along with two glasses of wine and a half Caesar salad. When the latter arrived, presentation was underwhelming to say the least. After a quick sampling, taste mirrored presentation. If you want a comparable, I’d say the prepackaged salad kits at the grocery store are on par with what was served. BTW- that was disturbing sign number two (i.e., the place being virtually empty was disturbing sign number one). When our entrée arrived, we were literally taken a back. A large oval plate piled high with a mound of noodles, interspersed with asparagus (short, cut up variety), a few strips of sun dried tomatoes and lumps of white chicken meat (i.e., and I mean the color white about the size and shape of my thumb). After one serving I had enough. If you want a comparable for this menu item, go to the frozen food aisle at the grocery store and look for the boxed pasta dishes; you know, the ones that require pulling up one end of the box (i.e., for venting) and microwaving the whole thing on high for 10-12 minutes. That would be an accurate description of what was served. It was awful. To be even more blunt, I’ve had far tastier entrees at Noodles & Company. After concluding that part of our meal I now only surmise we were still in a state of disbelief about the whole experience because we made the decision to order one Tiramisu to share. We were told by our waiter it was made fresh daily by the Chef’s mom. Whether that’s true or not I do not know but because I refuse to insult mom, I will say it was OK and stop there. We concluded our evening with a to-go order of chocolate cake for the kids to share. I can tell you from observation later that evening it was the best part of the experience. As for the grand finale (i.e., the bill), let me put it this way: including a 15% tip (i.e., service was decent) just over $112. That was for one entrée (albeit a large one), the aforementioned half Caesar salad, two glasses of house wine and two desserts. And the $112 doesn’t include the $5 tip we gave the parking attendant. Upon departing, we almost immediately felt like we just got ripped off. And that feeling has become even more rooted as time has gone by. To sum up, I keep scratching my head thinking how can an establishment that’s both expensive and incredibly mediocre in its offerings continue to operate in such a competitive marketplace? Judging from the empty tables and our dining experience, I’m betting it won’t be much longer. Let me finish by saying I’ve never posted a restaurant review before but did so now only because our experience so closely matched Westword’s (i.e., just wish I had read the article beforehand, which would have allowed me to avoid this place altogether). Thanks Westword for the article and please continue publishing accurate reviews like this one about Carmine’s on Penn.

Stephen_hanley
Stephen_hanley

I haven't read all of the posts, but I agree 100% with the review. My wife and I managed to have a rare night out without 3 kids in tow. That opportunity was a little last minute and we had to be back relatively early that evening. Initially I tried to make reservations for 5:30 at our usual semi-upscale staples: McCormick & Schmick; Bonefish Grill and even Maggianos. Everyone was booked so I had this brilliant idea of trying Cormine's on Penn. We knew it was something of a Denver institution but had never gone. Much to my surprise, on Friday, I had no problem getting a reservation for Saturday night. When we arrived, the place was virtually deserted. Almost every table was open. We thought that was odd, but, it was early we told ourselves. Our waiter raved about almost everything on the blackboard menu. We took his suggestion to try the Montana Chicken with a Ceasar salad. When the latter arrived, it look pretty plain and much to our surprise, tasted plain as well. I would actually equate it to the pre-packaged Ceasar salad kit variety you can get at the grocery store. When the Montana chicken arrived, we were a little taken back. Very little presentation. Just a plate full of noodles, small pieces of asparagus, strips of sun dried tomato and lumps of white chicken. After finishing one medium portion, I had enough. We would akin this dish to something pulled from the freezer aisle of the grocery store. You know, the kind of item where you pull one of the corners of the cardboard container and microwave the box on high for 10 minutes. Quite frankly, the dish was awful. The only thing worse than the food was the bill. For one entree, two glasses of wine, the aforementioned Ceasar salad and two desserts (i.e., one for us; one take home for the kids) was over $100. What a joke. My advise to anyone who has fond memories of this place: forget about the memories or patronize the place and that will make your previous memories even more fonder. Our experience was truly awful. There is so much competition out there its hard to imagine how they get away with such mediocrity. Talk about leveraging past reputation. I can't imagine this place being open in a year or two from now. Unless things drastically change.

I Like Pie
I Like Pie

We used to try to get into Carmines in its glory days and could never get a table. We forgot about it late 2010 when friends suggested it. I remember thinking "I've wanted to eat there since 1995"

What a disappointment. Our experience mirrored this review: An unexplained long wait before being taken us to a poorly located, sticky table in a half empty house. The hostess acted like it was the hottest place in town, declined our request to sit somewhere else and left us standing.

The waiter raved about the most expensive dishes and the add-ons, and we took the bait. $9 to add some grilled vegetables to a $23 dish? REALLY?? As with the reviewer, we stupidly bought the farm and the resulting bill made our eyes water.

It was decent food but nothing special and should have cost half what it did. On the way home we agreed that we could have had a really special, interesting meal at any number of other places instead.

There's a place in Portland, Oregon that used this same model, i.e. big bowls of relatively cheap food (pasta) paired with overpriced wine. It's like a trendy coffee shop business model: Sell something cheap, make it "seem" special, charge accordingly and laugh all the way to the bank. Like Carmines, the owners made a fortune in the 90s and 2000s and sold it.

Obviously there are still some 90s Wash Park types clinging to the good old days. But it's an "Emperor's new Clothes" argument based on their fading memories. Anyone who goes to Carmines now will probably be disappointed. Caveat Emptor.

nikileaks
nikileaks

I've been to Carmine's a few times over the last couple of years and always had a very pleasurable experience. But, this review and the range of comments in agreement/disagreement makes me think that the restaurant may have a severe issue with consistency. What's going on in that kitchen?

Jillian
Jillian

I have been to Carmine's at least 30 times during the past 4 years and it has been consistently tasty every time. I have shared this review with many of my friends that also dine at Carmine's and, while I agree that the servers have at times advised us to order too much food, the quality of the food is always superb. It's my opinion that this is an unbalanced review.

Nicboss73
Nicboss73

Sounds to me like the person writing the article must have interests in another resturant close by. Being in the business for over 20 years these people are easy to spot. I live in the mountains and have driven on several occasions more than 40 miles one way to have dinner at Carmine's. I think the place is great! Service, atmosphere, prices and food. On the top of my list of places to eat out. Great ziti carbonara!

Sam
Sam

This is really sad to hear. I went to Carmines a few days ago, and it was amazing! I hadn't been in about 6 months, yet the waiter remembered that we used to come all the time and stopped about 6 months ago. Every time we go, we order the Baked Ziti. It is a TON of food, but is super delicious! It's really good the next day as well. I really like the vodka ravioli as well. Also, if you sit at the bar, they offer half portions for single diners or couples. I'm also surprised about the comments about the service. The first time that we went, they specifically told us that their portions are huge, and to order no more than one appetizer and one entree for two of us (which still gives us lunch the next day, and I'm a pretty heavy eater). Every waiter that I have had has been friendly, and the overall dynamic seems to be remembering people time and time again, instead of up selling to get one big check.

barslinger
barslinger

I couldn't disagree more!! I have dined at Carmines a few times in the last 24 months and always found it very good. While i find some dishes better than others overall I think it a place I recommend. In fact after a year off trying a different a different restaurant for an annual group event usually 12-18 the group all wanted to go back to Carmines. Granted the size portions make it perfect for a large group, but the food, service, atmosphere and the management were always top notch. I have eaten my share of Italian food and a very good sampling of the Denver Italian restaurants and Carmines is nearly at the top. I strongly recommend this restaurant. I do recommend a party of at least four to truly enjoy the experience.

Lala
Lala

in its early days, Carmine's had a killer Amaretto cheesecake. Didn't last long and it was a true shame. I still wish i knew from where they had procured that cheesecake. When it was gone from the menu, the waiter stated that they had changed bakeries. I REALLY swish i knew where it came from; it was the best cheesecake i have ever had.

Guest
Guest

Wow. So it has come to this? The day that a place like Gaetano's gets a better review than Carmine's on Penn is a day Westword should get out the walking papers and review its requirements for 'talent'. This review is nothing but gossip, girl wolf pack group speak, and that oh-so-trendy young writer lob ball of using overwritten snobbery to cover up a lack of knowledge.

Dr. Drake
Dr. Drake

I live in the immediate neighborhood and used to dine at Carmines two to three times a week. I also used to send corporate clients, family members, and friends whenever they came to town to enjoy the great tastes and dining experience Carmines used to offer. I 100% agree with this article. You used to feel welcomed upon entering the doors by this family style Italian restaurant. Management and staff had smiles and a no rush we'll take care of anything attitude. This has disappeared behind a management team that is as close to Italian as the Jersey Shore. Now it appears there's more pressure on food cost %, closing on time, and definitely higher check averages as she so vividly pointed out the up selling. It's important for restaurants not to get too comfortable and remember how many options there are out there. Word of mouth is the biggest form of advertising and just having this article out there for any reason should force Carmines to take a hard look at themselves in the mirror and change. I'm not sure I'm ever going back but for the sake of the neighborhood, please make an effort.

G-ram
G-ram

Never been, never wanted too even before this review.

Terribly dated concept for a restaurant in a quickly developing industry.

Laura, glad to see you've got the balls to call a spade.

bmac
bmac

Finally someone has come out & said it! I've been a loyal Carmine's customer for years, but stopped going about 6 months ago b/c the quality & the service has just deteriorated a bit too far for me to justify the bill (& the overall treatment). The most memorable aspects of my last few visits there were the watery sauces, the plastic-tasting veggies, & the inflexible attitudes.

BevanneNS
BevanneNS

Awful review. Sounds like this critic needs to keep dining at lame small portioned restaurants and leave the good family style ones alone

Dan
Dan

Wow. I've had a few so-so meals here, and a couple of great one's. But damn, you laid it on thick. Merciless.

John
John

Great review, it is refreshing to read a restaurant review that is bluntly honest and not aimed at getting ads from the restaurant.

Wow!
Wow!

Wow! I'm not sure I've ever read a more negativity-laden review in my life. I've been a regular at Carmine's for many years now and going by the fact that the critic managed to fill two complete pages with nothing but negative rant, not providing even one glimpse of positivity leads me to question the source and to suggest they stick to only finer dining establishments worthy of their presence or possibly find another line of work altogether.

Carmines is a great, casual place to grab a bite to eat and catch up with friends. Denver seems to be littered with posher, hipper, here today, gone tomorrow restaurants I'm sure the critic will rave about but the fact that Carmines has been around for as long as it has should help to counter this critic's venomous review.

AFluffyWaffle
AFluffyWaffle

Don't bash someone's, writing, if, you don't like, know how to properly, use commas. Fuckwit

really?
really?

Don't quote poetry, if you don't actually know it. The 2 stanzas are:"Water, water, everywhere,Nor any drop to drink."

Coleridge, Rime of the Ancient Mariner. If you were actually familiar with the poem, you'd realize how inapplicable and ridiculous your usage is here. Unless you're referring to the albatross, and your albatross is ignorance.

People used to bitch about Sheehan's pretentious allusions, but at least he'd actually _read_ his literary allusions.

Ybarcewski
Ybarcewski

I remember going to this place many years ago with a large group and it was very good then. I heard through the grapevine that Carmine's had dropped the ball and was now over priced and no longer tasty at all.

Just saying
Just saying

I second this review, I have only been there once but the experience was dreadful, and to think I waited 1.5 hours for the punishment.

guest
guest

Read your review on trip advisor. You sound a lot like an angry ex employee not an impartial diner.

Fishmonger28
Fishmonger28

Not sure how the desserts were made in the past, but they are now made fresh daily by the chef's mom. Still have cheesecake on the menu, but without the amaratto flavoring.

Lala
Lala

Not true. Back in the mid 90s, Westword did a review of Josephina's. It was a long standing Italian restaurant in Larimer Square, if you aren't familiar. By that time, its glory days were far, far behind, and the food was awful, with worse service. It too had been wildly popular at one time. But i had never seen a review of a restaurant as scathing at that one that had been in Westword for Josephina's. I loved reading it, and it was correct in all assessments. But wow! I wish WW would dig it out of its archive and post it. It made this one look completely benign. I have never forgotten that review, ever.

laughriot
laughriot

get a life, nerd. no one cares about your poetry fact checking.

carmine's sucks, thank you laura.

Laura Shunk
Laura Shunk

Thanks for the comment -- you're right about the quote, which we should have caught in proofreading.

As for the allusion, though, the most common interpretation of that line deals with the notion of being surrounded by plenty but being unable to partake.

Which is exactly what I meant. Surrounded by mountains of food, being hungry, couldn't indulge.

Lala
Lala

It was always overpriced, but had really good food.

Lala
Lala

I have had subsequent cheesecakes there. Not even remotely as good. cant speak for the current ones. I havent been to Carmines in several years.

 
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