Cafe Society

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.

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.

As we attempted to force down a forkful or two, our nervous chuckles became uncontrollable fits of giggles. Our table held a massive spread of food -- and we didn't want to eat any of it. It was a physical manifestation of the phrase "Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink."

I stopped laughing when I got the check, though. For what we'd paid for our inedible feast, we could have gone just about anywhere else in the city.

Carmine's has held down this corner of Pennsylvania and Bayaud since 1994, when Larry Herz, a veteran Denver restaurateur, opened it as a family-style, neighborhood Italian joint; in the early years, it was so popular that people across the city considered this their neighborhood joint. It's changed ownership a few times since then, first moving to Chris Linker, a former Carmine's waiter; then to Linker's ex-wife; then, five years ago, to Shannon Bangert and Brad Ritter, who still own the place.

Carmine's was intended as a place where big groups could converge and enjoy themselves without thinking too much about what they were eating; it dates from the days when quantity ruled over quality. But today, the kitchen seems to have given no thought to any updates, to any adjustments to the menu. No half orders are allowed, not even half glasses of wine. Incomplete parties can't be seated. The kitchen remains devoted to the idea of putting out a roster of enormous dishes. But while many of these dishes were once decent, today they rarely rise to even that level.

At this juncture of gastronomic history, smart restaurateurs are going in a different direction -- and so are diners. No one's trying to imitate those old, mediocre menus -- at least not intentionally. Chefs care about the food they serve; diners care about where food comes from. And while there's still a place for neighborhood joints, still room for comfortable restaurants that encourage people to gather over good, simple comfort food, Carmine's food is simply not good.

Another recent dinner there started with a barely passable minestrone, watery and full of pasty vegetables and macaroni. From there I moved on to a few bites of a mealy veal marsala and an oily side of spaghetti marinara, the sauce so thin it wasn't really marinara at all. And I paid another astronomical check, still having failed to find a single dish that I'd want to take a second bite of -- much less a second helping.