I don't have anything against corporate chain restaurants, I just find in general that we have the most interesting and unique experiences at local restaurants. That's not to say that there aren't local places that turn out to be real duds or chains that feel local and are very well done.
With this in mind, last weekend we headed over to the local Carrabba's Italian Grill for dinner. In the interest of full disclosure, a Carrabba's representative had contacted me a few weeks ago and asked if I'd be interested in a complimentary meal in return for a honest, no-strings-attached review of the experience. I accepted.
When we arrived for dinner, the place was already pretty busy. We decided to sit at one of the counters that surround the open kitchen. This ended up being a good choice as we were treated to several samples, compliments of the kitchen, throughout our meal. We sat right next to the wood-burning oven and pizza prep station. The manager working the area was friendly and knowledgeable, which made up for the fact that our server was new and still learning the menu. At least she didn't lack enthusiasm.
For our starter, we tried the antipasti platter of calamari, bruschetta and mozzarella. The bruschetta and mozzarella were both solid and the calamari was nicely done - lightly fried and not greasy. Moving on to our main course, I decided on the lobster ravioli and Traci ordered the chicken gratella, which was a grilled chicken breast with herbs and oil. Her sides were mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus.
My lobster ravioli was a good choice, as it's hard to go wrong with lobster and pasta. This being said, I would have enjoyed a little kick to the sauce, although I realize this might have overwhelmed the lobster flavor. Traci enjoyed her chicken, which had a nice grilled taste and was juicy. She called her mashed potatoes delicious, which I can vouch for after stealing a few bites. The asparagus was solid.
Seemingly taking a page out of the Seasons 52 play book (a Darden chain that doesn't seem like a chain by the way), Carrabba's desserts are available in "dessert shot glasses" for lack of a better term. "Full-sized" desserts are also available. We went with samplers ("shots"?) of cannoli and fudge brownie. I'm always a sucker for a good cannoli. Needless to say, we had to be rolled out of the place.
Overall, we had a good experience. Sitting up at the chef counter certainly added to the meal and I think the counter works well for couples or diners eating solo. There's also a nice bar area. In comparing Carrabba's to other Italian chains, it's obviously a cut above Olive Garden in food and atmosphere, but you pay for it. I've only eaten once at Romano's Macaroni Grill, but enjoyed Carrabba's more. I am partial to the Maggiano's Little Italy chain. We had several very good meals at the Tampa location.
Drop me a line if you've eaten at the Gainesville Carrabba's - what did you think?
In related news, I haven't had a chance to try it yet, but Francesca's Trattoria is now open.