When it comes to fast-casual Italian food, there are a few choices: Olive Garden, Bucca di Beppo, Maggiano’s Little Italy and Carrabba’s Italian Grill. Now, any good Italian will tell you none of these come close to what Nonna can whip up on a Sunday. But when you’re looking to satisfy a craving for some spaghetti and meatballs and don’t want to do the cooking yourself, any of these will suffice.
Of the four Italian chain restaurants I mentioned above, Bucca di Beppo is the only one I haven’t experienced. Olive Garden… well, I haven’t been in one of those in ages, and Carrabba’s always makes for a good, inexpensive alternative to a more traditional red sauce, white-tablecloth joint.
The thing I like best about Carrabba’s is that they prepare the food fresh in an open kitchen where you can see the food being made. Some of their restaurants actually have a counter where you can eat and watch the cooks whip up your meal.
The menu at Carrabba’s is pretty typical and changes quite regularly. In fact, their menu did just change and I stopped in to sample some of the new offerings, including a few things off a new “Small Plates” section that are inexpensive, perfect for ordering a few and sharing with your tablemates or even making a meal out of.
First up was the Italian Lettuce Wraps – wood grilled chicken tossed with vegetables and ricotta salata in a lemon vinaigrette, served on top fo romaine lettuce with a port wine reduction. Similar to lettuce wraps you would enjoy at an Asian restaurant, these were quite good and tasty.
Next up was the meatballs. Prior to making an appearance on the Small Plates menu, Carrabba’s meatballs could be ordered as a side or were available at the bar during happy hour. Now they are front-and-center as an appetizer. Available two per order, the meatballs come with ricotta cheese and are served in their Pomodoro sauce. They’re not large but sized right for a starter. While good, they’re nothing to write home about and I’m sure you’ll say that grandma could make a better meatball, but they’re not bad none the less.
When it came to entrees, I was going to go with one of the classics I was familiar with at Carrabba’s, but a new menu item caught my attention – the Cioppino. This seafood stew is made up of mussels, clams, small bay scallops, shrimp and white fish in a creamy sauce with some toasted ciabatta bread for dipping. I have to say, while the portion was small, the dish was very flavorful and the seafood all tasted fresh with no issues to report. Like all entrees at Carrabba’s, it came with the choice of soup or salad.
While Italian fast-casual will never replace your favorite neighborhood Italian restaurant, Carrabba’s fits the bill with good food at an affordable price. Their menu features pasta, chicken, seafood, steak, and pork. They also have wood-fired pizzas which make for a good app to share and their entire menu is available for takeout.