Last weekend we visited Carrabba’s Italian Grill at their location in Anderson on Beechmont Avenue. While Carrabba’s is a large chain with broad geographic reach, none of the four people in our party had ever been to one, so we figured it was worth a visit. Carrabba’s has the feel of a large Italian restaurant chain with an attractive, but no doubt replicable decor and the busy feel most chain restaurants have.
That said, Carrabba’s struck us as different from many chains in ways both good and not-so-good. For example, we’ll start with the menu. The menu is a good size with a variety of main dish options ranging from wood-fired specialty pizzas to traditional Italian dishes to meat and seafood coming off their grill. But the highlight of the menu is really the local specials prepared by each restaurant. The specials' descriptions sounded fantastic—creative dishes playing with Italian flavors and fresh seafood and meat.
Now on to the food. Unlike chains that nickel and dime you with every course, most of the dishes at Carrabba’s include both a salad and side dish. The salad options were a House, Italian, or Caesar salad. I started with the Italian salad. The salads were small, side portions, but perfectly adequate for starting the meal, especially given the lack of an additional charge. The Italian salad was a basic salad of mixed greens to which they add celery, carrots, and a balsamic vinaigrette dressing. While it wasn’t the most exciting salad I’ve ever had—and I don’t think Carrabba's expected it to be that either—it was certainly a fine start to the meal.
Another key component to starting a good Italian meal is the bread. The bread at Carrabba’s was fresh from the oven and served with a delicious olive oil and herbs combination. The server brought out a dish with rosemary, oregano, and basil and then covered it in oil—mmmmm. The bread itself was not particularly exciting, but definitely better than most places that serve stale bread made more of air than flour. Even when our server, Monte (as in Carlo), refilled our basket it was still fresh out of the oven.
And then came the real food. I ordered one of the restaurant’s specials, which was a three-part dish. The first part was a smaller portion of Carrabba’s award-winning Chicken Bryan—a grilled chicken breast with goat cheese, sundried tomatoes, and a basil lemon butter sauce. This dish won Best Overall Dish at Taste-of-Cincinnati for the last two years, and I fully concur. The chicken was moist and the combination of the goat cheese and sundried tomatoes was delicious. I would not hesitate to order it again.
Part number two was another chicken dish—this time the grilled chicken was served with a fig and plum (I think) sauce. The sauce was simply phenomenal. It was rich, but not too overpowering, and the combination of flavors just hit the spot for me. I only wish it was on their regular menu, so I could order it again! You might have noticed by now that one of the ways Carrabba’s distinguishes itself is with its grill—an unusual fixture for an Italian restaurant. The grill proved to be a nice change from how other Italian restaurants cook their chicken, and I’d suggest ordering something off of it.
The third part of my dish was a pan-fried vegetable ravioli, which was also a tasty addition to the dish. The large ravioli was stuff full with veggies, and I would love to see this one on their regular menu, too.
The downside of ordering a three-part meal is that the portions are relatively small. In fact, all of the meals we saw looked smaller than expected until we realized that they were actually serving an appropriate amount of food instead of the go-ahead-and-gorge amount you find at a Cheesecake Factory or Maggiano’s. No one went away hungry, that’s for sure!
One of our friend’s ordered another chicken dish from the grill—this time stuffed with fontina cheese and topped with mushrooms. It sounded like a great combination to me, and she was not disappointed at all. Between the chicken and the side of cavatappi amatriciana (try pronouncing that one!), she still had to carry back leftovers. Although she was leaving town the next morning, I’m sure our friend who will actually get to finish the meal will be just as happy :-)
All in all, our Carrabba’s experience was a very positive one. It ranks high on my list of Italian chains, and if there were one closer to me, I’d probably frequent it more often. And now for a short disclaimer: Carrabba’s public relations agent encouraged us to try the restaurant and share our thoughts with our readers. Those of you in the marketing/PR field know that “encouragement” usually translates into a financial incentive, and indeed Carrabba’s was kind enough to subsidize a portion of our meal. That said, they asked us to provide our “honest review” and we’ve done our best to be objective—which is always a challenge after a good meal!
We felt a little out of place as four of us walked into Carrabba’s over the weekend; we may have been the only ones in the restaurant who were between the ages of 5 and 35. In any case, we had driven all the way out to Anderson for good Italian food, and we were hopeful. The short wait on a Saturday night was encouraging, although by the time we finished dinner, around 8:30, there were empty tables.
We decided to start our meal with a pitcher of Sangria. I don’t consider that quite authentic Italian, but it was advertised on the table and sounded good, so we tried some. The red wine-based drink came in a pitcher with lots of ice, and our glasses started about one-third full of ice as well. So while they told us that the pitcher was about four glasses, if the ice were removed, I think it would be much less. The watered down Sangria was good, but not particularly exciting. There wasn’t much fruit, and especially by the end, there was way too much water.
Luckily, that wasn’t the end of the meal. The bread was pretty good, riding mainly on being warm and served with a great herb mixture in the olive oil for dipping, rather than on the plain bread itself. The salads came with the grilled entrees on the menu (which also cost $4-5 more) or was an additional $3 for regular entrees. When describing the salads, the waiter listed ingredients, and he was horrified to realize that he brought us salads with no croutons. All of us insisted that we didn’t really need croutons (see bread, above), but he wanted to go get them for us anyway. Alas, he came back to report that they were out of croutons. We all found it a little odd that an Italian restaurant would run out of croutons at all, but especially on a Saturday night, and especially when the bread was abundant. It’s not so hard to take Italian bread and cut it up and toast it into croutons. In any case, we enjoyed our crouton-free salads. A couple of us ordered the Caesar salad with dressing on the side, and we were grateful that we had done so. The dressing was so thick and creamy that I easily put plenty on my salad with a fork. Like the bread, it was good, but not particularly exciting in any way.
Luckily for all of us, the main course was better than any of what we had before it. I ordered the Ti Piace (create your own) Pizza, which comes with tomato sauce, cheese, and whatever ingredients you want to add, although they suggest no more than four for optimal cooking. I ordered mine with eggplant, sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, and olives. It was delicious! There was plenty of cheese, which is important to me. The crust was flavorful, possibly even with a little cheese in the dough. It was cooked well. It is a ten-inch pizza, meaning that after bread and a salad, I took home the last two or three slices, and I’m looking forward to eating them at lunch tomorrow!
Throughout the meal, our waiter was friendly and knowledgeable, giving suggestions on different meals and listing with relative ease the ingredients in a variety of dishes. He came back to check on us frequently, and was generally a very good waiter for this type of restaurant. By “this type of restaurant,” I’m a little stumped. I might compare it to Maggiano’s; in terms of price they are similar, but for the same price, Maggiano’s serves almost twice as much food—there are always leftovers there, whereas half our party took nothing home from Carrabba’s. Carrabba’s is also a bit lacking on the atmosphere—inside the restaurant was fairly generic and not as upscale as the menu (and prices) show that they are trying to be.
In sum, Carrabba’s is a decent Italian restaurant. Everything is certainly at least adequate, and the main courses that we ordered were all very good. It is not high on the excitement scale, but it is predictable, which is sometimes nice when looking for a restaurant. One big setback is the location; it will likely be a long time before I return to Carrabba’s, if for no other reason than the food was not good, different, or exciting enough to justify the long 20-25 minute drive east.
Restaurants & Reservations: Dining in Cincinnati
What happens when a rabbi and a lawyer walk into a bar? We'll let you know in a few years, but until then we'll do our best to share with you our favorite (and not-so-favorite) Cincinnati restaurants and hope you'll share some with us, too!