Playing It Safe

Yet another chain has come to town offering bland, uninspired 'Italian' cuisine

As a daughter of Italy, I am always in search of great Italian food. Carrabba's Italian Grill in Oro Valley seemed like a logical choice--at least that was the word on the street.

We visited on a cold Friday evening and found the foyer and the bar packed--so typical of many chain restaurants, I'm afraid. We sidled our way to the bar and ordered drinks--vodka with two olives for John ($8) and a glass of chianti ($9) for me. The Carrabba's décor is more like decoration, complete with pictures of Mama, generic colors and faux marble tabletops.

The wait time was more than an hour, but we had called ahead and got put on the preferred diner list, so our wait was considerably shorter. I was glad, because if I had waited for more than an hour for the food we ate, I would've been sorely disappointed.

We were escorted to our table by the friendly hostess and had barely taken off our coats when our chirpy, young server arrived. She offered to bring some bread while we looked over the menu. Minutes later, she brought a basket of warm bread and a little plate with a mixture of herbs on it and poured some olive oil from the cruet on the table. The bread wasn't crispy enough, and the oil probably would have been just fine on its own.

We ordered the antipasto plate ($10.99), which was just a mix of several other appetizers and included the bruschette of the day (bruschette Scotty Thompson--now there's an Italian name for you), mozzarella marinara and fried calamari.

The bruschette consisted of caprino cheese (a mild goat cheese) baked in red sauce. Bruschette, in my book, should be crispy and toasted. This was neither. The two slices of bread were soggy with garlic butter. The cheese didn't seem to be baked at all, and the sauce was pretty bland. The calamari, too, was bland, and the marinara sauce didn't add a whole lot to the squid. As for the fried cheese: one bite, and we were done with it.

We ordered entrées. John ordered the veal Marsala ($16.49), and I ordered talgiarini Picchi Pacchiu ($12.99).

The dishes came with either a salad or soup. John ordered the salad with the house dressing, and I ordered the soup of the day: Mama Mandola's homemade chicken soup. The salad was the regular blend of head lettuce, tomatoes, onion slices, carrots, olives and croutons. It was served in a chilled bowl--certainly a nice touch, but there was nothing special about the salad. The same could be said for the soup. It was a glorified minestrone with several slices of white-meat chicken tossed in.

Our entrées fared no better. John's veal was served with spaghetti pomodoro, but it seemed more like a Bolognese sauce since it appeared to have meat in it. While the veal was tender, the Marsala sauce lacked the savory richness that makes Marsala sauce such a treat. Mushrooms and prosciutto are also supposed to be a part of the mix; the 'shrooms were there but John was hard-pressed to find the promised prosciutto.

My pasta was served in a big bowl that was so hot that the server had to use a napkin to put it on the table. I didn't understand why the bowl was so hot--unless the dish had been sitting in an oven to keep warm. This is essentially a lazy man's dish--the ingredients are not finely chopped--and so it was here. But again, Carrabba's played it safe and served up a plain version aimed at pleasing the masses.

Plus, the server brought a bowl of "freshly grated Romano cheese" to the table, but--as is the procedure at Carrabba's--she sprinkled it on our food and didn't leave it on the table. This pissed me off.

For dessert, we split the cannoli ($5.99), one of my most favorites. This version didn't come close to anything Italian.

We opted for a Sunday-night visit for our second dinner. (Unlike other Carrabba's, the Oro Valley location serves only dinner.)

The place was definitely less crowded and a whole lot calmer, which made the dining experience much nicer. Unlike many restaurants that are at their finest when the place is jammed, Carrabba's seemed to do better without the bedlam.

We debated ordering the mussels ($10.99) since we'd heard so many good things about them, but instead, we ordered the zucchini fritte ($7.99). John ordered the lasagne ($11.99), and I opted for the mezzaluna ravioli ($10.99); we each ordered the featured pinot noir ($12).

The server brought our wine, but not the right wine--we got white wine instead. There was an apology and an offer to take it off the check. Instead, we asked for the right stuff, and with another apology, the glasses were whisked away; we soon had what we'd ordered.

The zucchini was brought to the table along with roasted garlic aioli. Again, we were let down. The vegetable, which had been cut into strips, had almost no flavor, and the aioli drowned what flavor there was. I regretted not trying the mussels.

With a bit of redemption, the entrées were both good. John's lasagna was perfect portion of baked pasta layered with lots of meat and cheeses. There was just the right amount of sauce, too.

My entrée held plenty of half-moon-shaped ravioli that were filled with ricotta, chicken and spinach. The sauce, a rich tomato cream sauce, worked well with the pasta. But neither had a "Wow!" factor.

We took the dessert Rosa ($5.99) home to split. This was a butter cake topped with strawberries, pineapple, bananas and a passel of whipped cream. I enjoyed it, but it pretty much summed up our Carrabba's experience: safe, generic food.

I'll admit I set the bar high when it comes to the food of my heritage, but this Italian girl will not be back.