Not everybody has the time, money or desire to jet off to Rome every time they want Italian food. Fortunately the United States is full of good Italian restaurants, from little family run business to large corporate chains.  Right in the middle is a nation-wide chain that tries (and succeeds) to feel like a family run restaurant – Carrabba’s Italian Grill.  They don’t have managers, they have Proprietario or Proprietors.  You are welcomed into the restaurant as family and friends. Even their online club is named Amici – Friends.

Every season, Carrabba’s invites their Amici over for dinner, to try out their new (or returning old) menu features.  I was recently invited to join in for a first look at (and taste of) their new spring line-up, and visit with some of their current Amici (and perhaps make a few new amici of my own).Arancini

 In honor of their new three-course Festa Di Carrabba menu, we were invited to taste each of the six available entrees, as well as their newest appetizer, and one of their classic desserts.

Their newest dish, designed to stimulate your appetite, is Arancini.  What could possibly make Italian Sausage Risotto better? Deep frying it, of course.  Slightly spicy, with a hint of bell pepper, this dish is a classic from rural Italy. Carrabba’s version is served with marinara sauce for dipping (as all good, breaded, Italian dishes are, at least in the US).

The Proprietario of my local Carrabba’s, Josh, followed that up by bringing around Parmesan-Crusted Chicken. Served with grilled lemon wedges, this dish was by far my favorite of the night.  The chicken breast was perfectly cooked (which is very hard to find these days), Parmesan-crusted Chickenand, unlike most, the parmesan crust was not over-salty. With a squeeze from the grilled lemon, this dish was amazing.

Potato-Crusted Haddock arrived next at the table. Not as spectacular as the chicken, this dish was among the more simple served during the evening.  The easiest way to describe it is white.  White fish, coated in white potato flakes, covered in a white sauce.  Easy to eat, but, probably would have benefited from some of the grilled lemon from the previous course.

Next came an old favorite, brought back for this special menu, Champagne Shrimp and Scallop Linguine.  The Champagne cream sauce coating the noodles is a variation on the familiar Alfredo sauce. The addition of mushrooms and roasted red peppers helps flavor the sauce beyond the ordinary Alfredo everyone is used to.  The generous serving of Shrimp, Scallops, and noodles surprised everybody at the table. As always with pasta, it felt like we ate a full meal, and yet there were still mounds of pasta in the bowl.

Another perennial favorite, “Forever Braised” Beef Brasato (boneless short ribs) followed the seafood.  Fork tender and served in a rich sauce, this dish was the favorite of everybody else at the table, reminding them of the brisket mom used to make at home.  It was clear that the name “forever braised” was true.

Grilled Tuscan Skewers came out next.  Small and un-remarkable, this dish is perfect for the person at your table who was not particularly interested in joining you for Italian food.  It is a simple dish, Sirloin, bell peppers, onion, and tomato on a wooden skewer, grilled, and served on white rice.  The spices were Italian based (Oregano and a little garlic) but the wine sauce was only Italian because of the inclusion of Chianti.

The final entree was meant to be the crowning glory of the evening. Possibly because we were all so full from the other courses, we did not find the Lobster Mac & Cheese to be anything special.  Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of lobster, but, in this case, I felt that the lobster did not add to the Mac & Cheese at all.  As a matter of fact, it was almost impossible to find in the thick four-cheese sauce and the large corkTriple Chocolate Cakescrew noodles. Topped with breadcrumbs and broiled, it would have made a very nice side, but, to me, it wasn’t quite successful as an entree; I was bored with it after about three bites.

The evening ended with a toast from Josh, and a slice of Carrabba’s Sogno Di Cioccolata (what most restaurants call Triple Chocolate Cake). Layers of fudge brownie, chocolate mousse, and whipped cream, covered in a dark chocolate sauce, this dessert was a perfect sweet ending to an enjoyable evening.

The staff at Carrabba’s Italian Grill were attentive and pleasant, and Josh, the Proprietor, was attentive and congenial. All-in-all, it was a great deal of fun to have a chance to try all of the new dishes, and discuss them with my new “Amici”.  The best news is that you can experience a tasting dinner like this, too.  At the end of the evening I found out that, by joining Carrabba’s Amici club, you might be invited to drop by the restaurant for a complimentary taste of the new dishes, or join the staff for wine and food pairings, the Italian way. I enjoyed my first taste at Carrabba’s Italian Grill, and hope that you enjoy yours, so, if you drop by and try any of the dishes, be sure to let me know what you think.

Until the next taste, Arrivederci!