Thursday, January 8, 2009
I heart Carmine's, and now you know
Carmine’s is and always has been one of my favorite New York restaurants, and that’s surprising, since I’m not a person who particularly cares for “red sauce” Italian cuisine. As one of the city's busiest and most profitable dining establishments, this convivial family-style Southern Italian simply does it right. And as happy as I am out west, it’s a place I think about and miss quite a bit.
Owned by small restaurant group Alicart, Carmine’s has two Manhattan locations, my favorite being the newer, grander Times Square/Theater District one. Carmine’s had its following on the upper west side all along, but opening the second location in the early 90's in heavily trafficked real estate truly stoked their reputation. My office happened to be across the street at 1515 Broadway, so those were the years I fell in love with the place, and learned a few things about Carmine’s too:
1. Never attempt to dine there after a Wednesday or Saturday matinee, nor any time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.
I say this because it’s just too dang crowded, though it should be noted: when you walk in the door and it's crowded – because it always is – that’s part of the charm. If you walk in feeling blah, you will soon feel un-blah. Walk in feeling dead, you will soon feel undead (hmm, metaphor doesn't really work here)...you will soon feel alive!
2. You can make new friends while waiting for a table at the bar if you order the calamari.
This is where “family-style” makes its first appearance. The famous calamari appetizer arrives on a white platter measuring roughly a foot and a half long. The calamari on the platter is piled about 6 inches high, and this is why you shouldn’t be shocked that the ever-climbing price for the best calamari in the city is now topping out at $25.50 a plate. No one can finish this on their own, so the thing to do is order it, eat what you will, then pick a neighbor to your left and/or right to pass it down to when you’re through. That is what’s done, almost expected, and is all part of the homey feeling inherent in the place. The best is watching the shocked and pleased faces of newbie tourists crammed at the bar anxiously waiting for a table, when you start to pass down the calamari, look 'em in the eye and say “Please, I’ve had enough. Enjoy.” Even when you've had your fill, the platter looks untouched! So it is a little confusing for sure. But by the time the tourists nervously utter “oh, um, that’s ok” the bartender has already moved the platter in front of them and insisted on your behalf, to which the tourists take a sigh of relief that New Yorkers are ok afterall while they start chowing down on their free calamari.
3. The bigger the group the better: try for more than two, and never go alone.
It’s more fun and more economical to go with a party of at least 3 or 4, or more. See, you may think $25.50 is crazy for an appetizer. But this feeds 8 people! In most city restaurants these days, entrees run $20-$40 and up per person. At Carmine’s most dishes cost somewhere in the mid-$20’s, the cost of a cheap NY entrée if you’re lucky, but these entrées serve 5. In fact, I once took some visiting friends from Norway with terrible jet lag who therefore only ate one piece each of my favorite chicken scarpiello. The leftovers fortuitously became all mine (no refrigerator in their hotel room) and I had lunch for 5 straight days. If you want leftovers, sure, go with one other person, but otherwise it really is fun to go with a group and get so much for so little.
4. Garlic is king.
Every dish has tons of it with no apologies, yet the kitchen never makes it overpowering. So even if you think you don’t have garlic breath, take advantage of the free mouthwash in the bathrooms and do your dining companions and yourself a favor.
5. The service is bawdy, which is part of the schtick.
The servers aren’t rude, just a little gruff and commanding. Go with it. They’ll take charge and you can relax. Hallelujah!
6. The atmosphere is alive.
Your psuedo-Italian family just invited you to dinner, and Sinatra is playing. Wine is poured into traditional tumblers instead of frou-frou glasses. The room is huge and dimly lit, old-world style. The décor warm, the energy electric. It's fabulous. If you'd rather have a quiet romantic dinner, take a short walk to restaurant row on 46th Street (between 8th & 9th Avenues).
7. The food is great, no matter what the food snobs say.
Between 2000-2006 I worked at a restaurant company, also near Carmine's, and my colleagues respected my taste as a foodie, but not after they heard that as a Zagat voter I consistently chose Carmine’s as one of my top 5 restaurants in the city. Yes, there are almost too many bastions of fine Italian dining in NY – Lattanzi, Il Mulino, Del Posto, even Da Silvano – but whatever, you can also have a casual Italian restaurant be just as good in its own way.
8. The menu never changes – what a relief!
Also when at the restaurant company, we had weekly meetings that included talks on how to increase food sales. It was here that I'd remind my colleagues – who liked to change our restaurants’ menus frequently – that Carmine’s is great because their menu is always the same, year after year, with the same dishes posted on the wall so you always know what to expect and can order your favorites again and again. Now to be fair, while Carmine's menu never changes, the prices have to every now and then, though I don't judge. Rent is high in Times Square.
9. You always leave with fond memories.
This is a big one. I have so many wonderful memories of dining at Carmine’s through the years. I could list them all for you, but that's ok. Instead, I'll tell you that whenever I’ve been there, for whatever the occasion and no matter whom I was with, I have always felt happy. My first time set this expectation up, perhaps, as I was a last-minute guest in a big group with a generous host and the big food platters kept coming. I grinned ear-to-ear for hours and thought in awe, "how did I get here?" The times after that, there was laughter and kinship and a feeling of total satisfaction I can't really explain. Maybe just seeing the shocked, joyful faces of guests in the restaurant when they see their first Carmine’s platter of food come to the table sums it up. It’s a big party that you’re a part of, and it won’t break the bank. And you can come back whenever you want! So whether at a table for two (which is not recommended) or a group of 8 or more, when you walk in the door at Carmine's you usually feel right at home...and if home also means getting drunk at the bar for an hour while you wait for a table, even better.
10. The food is consistently consistent, delicious and flavorful.
Why is this important item #10? Because as you can see, there are many reasons to love Carmine's besides the food, so it’s an added bonus that everything tastes great too. My favorite dishes have not changed much through the years, and here they are:
* Hot antipasto platter – many morsels sitting in a platter the size of a garbage can lid
* Carmine’s salad or special salad – when Caesar is not your mood
* Stuffed artichoke – huge, bread-crumby, lemony
* Spiedini a la romana – a loaf of bread with slices of melted mozzarella in between covered in a lemon butter caper sauce
* Chicken scarpiello – heavenly, different from any other, with a sweet & sour brown lemon rosemary garlic sauce and caramelized garlic cloves
* Chicken saltimbocca – my first saltimbocca experience, perfectly executed
* Sunday pasta special – 4 different homemade pastas in 4 scrumptious sauces
*Strawberry shortcake – the size of a small planet, or perhaps I exaggerate :)
11. As of this past December, people not in NY can try Carmine’s food too!
So after all that, the reason for this post today is that when I was in NY last month for Christmas, no I did not get to dine at Carmine’s. However when I walked by the Theater District location past their giant holiday crowd, in the window was this amazingly good news: “On Sale: Carmine’s Family Style Cookbook.” This means I can now make…You can now make...Carmine’s food at HOME! In LA or anywhere! Ahhhhh! :D
Can you tell this makes me happy? I am de-lir-i-ous. The one thing I fear in recommending the cookbook, though, is that regular home stovetops don’t give off the high heat level of a restaurant stovetop, so my chicken scarpiello chicken pieces may not achieve the same golden level of luscious caramelization needed to thrill. However now that I have the recipe for that ultimate favorite brown lemon rosemary garlic sauce, and all of their other recipes, 2009 promises to be the best year yet.
Until we eat again,