Carabba’s Italian Grill
The Mall at Green Hills, 2126 Abbott Martin Rd. 463-3000
4-10 p.m. Mon.-Thurs.; 4-11 p.m. Fri.; noon-11 p.m. Sat.; 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sun.
A highly unusualand let’s hope never-to-be-repeatedchain of events a couple weeks ago led me to eat three fast-food meals on three consecutive days, and a fourth three days later. Given that this is about four times my annual average, it’s a wonder my body didn’t go into toxic shock.
First, Scene photographer Eric England and I were on assignment in Carthage, Tenn. It was well past the lunch hour when we concluded the interview and shoot, and our only recourse was a Sonic Drive-In. That wasn’t too bad; I maintain that of all the fast-food chains, Sonic is the best, and I was happy with my grilled chicken breast sandwich and even snagged several of Eric’s onion rings.
The next night, with four children in tow, I decided I should try Jack In The Box, the San Diego-based hamburger chain that’s entering the Middle Tennessee market in a big way. The parent company, after surviving the disastrous E. coli bacterium outbreak in the chain’s Pacific Northwest stores some six years ago, has bounced back and is expanding into three Southeastern states. This year, they will open about 30 stores in Tennessee, Louisiana, and North Carolina; Middle Tennessee will get one every three to four weeks over the next several months.
The only store open that week was in Hermitage, so we got on I-40 East at about 6 o’clock on a Friday night, allowing my children to partake in the dreaded interstate commuter experience. It horrified them as much as it does me.
So did the Jack In The Box experience. Service was immediately an issue; inexplicably, right at the dinner hour, only one of three registers was open, and the wait to order and obtain our food was measurably slower than most restaurants that call themselves fast food. With the exception of the excellent Oreo-cookie milkshakes and the spicy curly fries, the food was hardly worth the wait. The jalapeno poppers lacked any bite whatsoever, the frozen onion rings were still cold on the inside, the burgers were so greasy the buns disintegrated by mid-burger, the marinated chicken in the chicken fajita pita was so oversalted I could only force one bite, and the chicken nuggets, advertised as chicken breast pieces, were an unappealing gray in color, stringy in texture, and fared miserably by my daughter’s standards. As Harry likes to say about all of his trying experiencesfrom climbing the 366 steps to the top of the Statue of Liberty to summer farm camp”We never have to do that again!“ No, we don’t, not even if Jack In The Box ventures into 12 South, God forbid.
The following day, Eric and I were again on assignment, this time in Antioch. Pulling off I-24 East at the Old Hickory Boulevard exit, a sign for Popeye’s Fried Chicken in the Travel Centers of America caught my eye, and I thought I’d give the spicy chicken chain, attempting a comeback in the Nashville area, a try. It was deja vu all over again as the small store, located within the truck stop, had only one cash register in service, and 16 people lined up in front of it, at 12:30 p.m. on a Saturday. Helloooo, does anyone running these places have a watch?
When I finally got my food a half-hour later, I tried a spicy thigh and a mild wing, but could barely tell the difference between the two. The biscuits were good and buttery, and the red beans and rice and Cajun rice are acceptable alternatives to most chicken outlets’ potatoes and slaw. Still, while I would happily drive an hour for a plate of Prince’s Hot Chicken, I wouldn’t go a block out of my way for Popeye’s.
After all of that, Carabba’s Italian Grill was looking good. My party of 10 was seated immediately, thanks to our 5:30 arrival. Half an hour later and there would have been a lengthy wait as even on a Monday night, this new eatery in Green Hills fills up quickly. This was my family’s second visit, proving that Harry isn’t always right when he says, ”We never have to do that again.“ Our first visit was, with the exception of the service, abysmal.
The second fared somewhat better, at least so far as the food is concerned; perhaps the three months they have now been open has allowed them to work out some kitchen glitches. Carabba’s is yet another Italian-themed restaurant chain owned by a large corporation that has little, if any, direct linkage to anything remotely Italian. There’s Olive Garden, owned by General Mills, and Romano’s Macaroni Grill, owned by Brinker International, and now Carabba’s, owned by Outback Steakhouse. Carabba’s was founded 14 years ago in Houston, Texas, by two Italian Americans, and was purchased for nationwide development by Outback in 1995.
”There’s room for two or three good Italian chains and we just want to be one of them,“ Carabba’s president Carl Sahisten has said. Its stated concept is the same that made Outback such a success: good, reasonably priced food served in an entertaining atmosphere by friendly employees.
Employees are friendly, but not overly obsequious, and from bottom to top, Carabba’s aims to please. A mistaken order on our first visit was removed from our bill without even asking; on our second, Carrie did a remarkable job of serving our table of three adults and seven children, with a smile that never left her face.
The atmosphere can be entertaining, particularly for families accustomed to some din at dinner. It is certainly lively, with big tables closely spaced in the dining area, a bar with small tables for cocktails and a communal table in the center where perfect strangers can pull up a chair and dine together, and an open exhibition kitchen along the back wall. It is also family-friendly; there were babies and children everywhere, the latter happily engrossed in the activity books handed out upon arrival.
Good food? Well, there’s the argument. Why is it that affixing American to the far side of a hyphenas in Italian-American, Chinese-American, Japanese-American, or Mexican-Americantranslates to taking a perfectly healthy food and adding so much fat as to render it a nutritional disaster? Are our taste buds so desensitized to natural flavor that we must add a slab of cheese to everything from bread to chicken to make it palatable?
Take the bruschetta, for example. In Italy, bruschetta consists of bread rounds rubbed with garlic and olive oil, then toasted; sometimes chopped fresh tomato and basil are sprinkled on top. At Carabba’s Grill, bruschetta consists of big slices of soggy white bread blanketed with a thick layer of cheese, mushrooms sauted in butter, chopped tomato, and great dollops of oily pesto.
In Italy, pizza is thin-crusted, layered with sliced fresh tomatoes, a sprinkle of cheese, and basil. In America, pizza is thick doughy bread slathered in tomato sauce and cheese, with toppings that range from sausage to pineapple, the more the better. At Carabba’s, the Margherita pizza was somewhere in the middle, with a thin, crisp crust, sliced Roma tomatoes, chopped basil, and slices of mozzarella. What possible purpose does coating the crust with olive oil serve?
In Italy, calamari is lightly breaded and sautéed, then served with a few wedges of fresh lemon. At Carabba’s, calamari is battered, deep-fried, then served with a thick marinara sauce or a ramekin of fatty white sauce. In Italy, mussels are steamed in garlic, lemon, and white wine, then served in a big bowl of the fragrant broth. At Carabba’s Grill, the flavorful broth became a sauce, thickened with what we guessed to be heavy cream.
Entrees are rarely allowed to stand on their own. Chicken can’t be just chicken, it has to be topped with greasy mushrooms and prosciutto, or cheese and lemon-butter sauce, or stuffed with cheese and prosciutto, then topped with mushroom basil butter sauce. Shrimp and scallops are coated with bread crumbs, then topped with lemon-butter sauce. Steak is topped with mushrooms, prosciutto, and wine sauce. Shrimp is sautéed in lemon butter and wine, with mushrooms and scallions, then served over fettucini alfredo. For crying out loud, stop the madness! ”Less is more“ is not a principle recognized in the Carabba’s kitchen.
If you like that kind of thing, and certainly many, many people dowitness the obscene obesity rate in this countrythen Carabba’s does it as well as the next Italian chain.
Whenever I visit these places, I am reminded of my sister’s explanation of what she likes about Olive Garden, a question I posed to her after my experience there. She replied, ”I like their breadsticks, I like their bottomless salad bowl, and I like that it’s not too Italian.“ There you have it, an all-American endorsement of an Italian-American restaurant chain, ”It’s not too Italian.“
Proving that things can always be worse, one night later my children and I tried Fazoli’s, a fast-food Italian-American restaurant on Harding Place that also earns the ”not too Italian“ label, but with far less effort and quality. We tried a Submarino, a slice of pepperoni pizza, a pasta sampler, and the Italian chef salad. Fazoli’s lived down to all my low expectations, and I can easily assure my son that we never have to do that again.