The word on Carmine's on Penn: You either love it or you hate it.
If you love it, as I do, you appreciate the casual, fun setting and the huge portions of inexpensive Italian food. If you hate it--as many others apparently do, judging from the calls I've received from people complaining about the concept, the noise and the difficulty in procuring a table--owner Larry Herz wonders if you just don't get it.
"This is not the place for anniversaries; this is not the place for an intimate evening or a quiet repast," Herz says. "In fact, it's not really for two. Carmine's is meant for at least four people."
His reasoning is simple: Carmine's dishes are served "family-style," with each order easily feeding two (and often more) diners. Although the massive-portion concept is the second obvious similarity between this Carmine's and Carmine's in New York, Herz denies that he took his lead from the latter. "No, no, no," he says. "I copied who Carmine's copied--La Parma in New York."
But then, La Parma had a little help from a country that's served family-style for quite some time: Italy.
In fact, Denver's Carmine's has some of the bustling, crowded feel of Italy's friendly tavola caldas--basically nice cafeterias where people jostle for elbow room at long tables and get to know each other quickly as the salt is passed around. The scene is informal, and the din so thick that the waiter's footsteps reverberate up through your plate. During one of our visits, the restaurant was so loud that I turned to my husband and said, "I've gotten a lot of complaints from people about the noise." His reply (no kidding): "What?"
The obvious option is to concentrate on the food rather than on the conversation. And fortunately, it bears up well under intense scrutiny--even if Herz claims that excellent cuisine wasn't his original intention. "My plan really wasn't to have great food," says Herz, who's previously been a manager type at Cliff Young's (more like a "glorified host," he sneers), Cafe Paradiso and Denver's European Cafe. "It was the value I was interested in. I looked around and saw that the places that are busy--Macaroni Grill, Boston Chicken--are low-priced; they're economical. But, of course, I wanted to serve much better food than that."
He's succeeded, thanks in no small part to the considerable talents of friend Rando Santino, a chef he hooked up with during a brief stint at the 15th Street Grill. One day at that ill-fated restaurant, Santino had Herz try a piece of bruschetta he'd created, and Herz immediately knew they were on to something.
Now that same bruschetta is available at Carmine's, on its own or as part of the Tour of Italy appetizer ($9.95). The sampler turned out to be the weakest offering we tried, primarily because the items overlap in ingredients and everything starts to taste the same. For example, the breaded green peppers were oily and well roasted but almost indistinguishable from the similarly prepared eggplant. And although the focaccia, a garlic-coated bread, was tasty, it was also redundant: We'd already availed ourselves of the incredible rolls that Carmine's provides gratis (butter, parmesan and a salty dough, with enough garlic to send fumes forty feet at each bite). Aaah, but then there was the bruschetta, a thick slice of Italian bread sopping with garlicky oil, diced tomatoes and lots of basil.
Herz and Santino like that topping so much that they expanded upon it to create the basis for three of their more popular sauces: alla Carmine's, La Parma and Larry's, all of which are paired in various combinations with fish, meats and pasta. Each day's variations are scrawled on a blackboard in the back of the dining room; it would be helpful, though, if more elaborate written explanations were provided somewhere, because we spent a good ten minutes getting the details of each preparation from the waiter.
He'd been quick to ask if we were familiar with the premise of family-style dining and seemed surprised when we ultimately ordered two entrees anyway. Why? Because I wanted Alfredo ($12.95) and my husband wanted Larry's pasta ($14.95)--and if two of you want more than one taste, your only choice is to order to excess. And I wouldn't have wanted to miss a bit of either dish. The Alfredo was heavy on the parmesan and light on the butter, which meant it didn't gum up after cooling, and the portion, owing to a plethora of linguine cooked truly al dente, was absolutely enormous. Larry's pasta took the bruschetta topping and added more of everything--more garlic, more basil, more diced tomatoes--as well as about a breast's worth of juicy chicken strips and a surprisingly generous helping of sun-dried tomatoes.
It's a good thing our entrees were worth waiting for, because they took a half hour to appear. We knew our waiter was getting nervous when, after passing by and saying "almost ready" twice, he stopped to explain that the timing of our meal was off because we'd only ordered the appetizer sampler and the entrees. So on our second visit we got down to serious business, taking on soup and salad--but after eating both, we still waited another half hour for the main course.
Because we'd been seated right below the blackboard, we couldn't see that day's menu and didn't know a Caesar salad ($7.95) was listed. We'd simply asked for "a salad" and were pleasantly surprised (although some people wouldn't be) to end up with a large bowl of crispy, parmesan-studded romaine. Carmine's Caesar dressing is ambiguous--maybe some anchovy paste, maybe some Worcestershire--and the overall effect fairly mild.
The minestrone was another matter: Its flavors nearly leapt out of the pot the waiter left on the table. More like pasta e fagioli than traditional minestrone, the soup was teeming with macaroni, cannellinis, parsley, carrots, celery and summer squash. Its underlying appeal came from a base that tasted of ham hocks and chicken all at once. The pot contained more than enough for two, and we gladly took the remainder home.
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We also wound up with doggie bags for our entrees. The veal alla Carmine's ($18.95) and the snapper La Parma ($13.95) both were sublime. The veal had been pounded into submission before being breaded, wrapped in prosciutto and covered with mozzarella; the sauce was thick and laden with mushrooms, capers and cooked-down tomatoes. The snapper also rested in a light breading, but its sauce had been enhanced with balsamic vinegar and olive oil.
After so much food, it was almost impossible to think about dessert, but the canolis demanded our attention. Although two come to an order ($3.95), we were only able to finish one--but what a one it was. The shell was fresh and crispy, with none of the sogginess that immediately betrays freezing; the filling was light and fluffy and blessedly easy on the sugar--no aching teeth here. A smattering of chocolate chips served as a garnish, and the chocolate-dipped strawberries on the side were rich enough to heighten the experience without outdoing the star of the plate.
The strawberries did serve to point up one of Carmine's few drawbacks. They arrived at the table sweating--as were we after over an hour in the dining room. Herz glumly admits that the restaurant's swamp coolers aren't strong enough to combat 95-degree days. He's already at work on straightening out a few of Carmine's other kinks: another room (more space for more people) will soon open in the area behind the blackboard, since the dining room, bar/lounge area and charming patio (available only on a first-come, first-served basis) obviously aren't enough for this popular place. By sometime in mid-September he hopes to have built new, handicapped-accessible bathrooms--the current facilities are beside the kitchen and hot as heck, and so small there's often a wait.
As there is, of course, for a table at Carmine's on almost any night of the week. Just remember: Love conquers all.