“What the hell is going on around here?” gasped a Swedish tourist as a Carmine’s server brought what looked like an actual haystack to his table. His order of fried zucchini arrived on a giant platter in a foot-high mound. Perhaps the price, $20, should have tipped him off. But that’s a normal tariff in Sweden, hence the shock and awe.
Indeed, as a friend said, Carmine’s is best enjoyed in a group. Even four people may not finish a typical pasta or entrée here, and it makes one wonder how a restaurant with such large portions and reasonable prices can turn a profit. “Volume solves everything,” says Carmine’s CEO Jeff Bank, in town from the Big Apple. I guess. This restaurant has seating for 800, more than 7,000 framed photos on the walls and a 47-foot ceiling with fans twirling constantly overhead—a Graham Greene novel gone South Bronx.
But while some may blanch at this type of excess, it must be said that quality and consistency are hallmarks here. Most food at this New York City import just plain tastes good, despite being over the top and peasant-y. The red sauce accompanying many of these dishes is delicious—not overly sweet, not overly acidic—and properly thick, redolent of enough garlic to get True Blood canceled.
And order a dish such as Porterhouse Contadina (Italian for “peasant woman”), and you get a 42-ounce steak beautifully sliced off the bone, a pound of Italian sweet sausage and huge piles of roasted potatoes and sautéed red and green peppers. Four of us didn’t so much as put a dent in this dish, after noshing on a hot antipasto platter and pasta.
Lest you should balk at the idea of paying $37 for a hot antipasto platter, consider this: There were eight stuffed mushrooms (the star, for my money), six baked stuffed clams, a bowl of mussels in a garlic-happy tomato broth, a calzone, fried eggplant and a pile of sautéed Italian greens blanketed by a flurry of ground sausage meat and garlic bread. My table wisely left approximately half. We had, after all, ordered more.
Our pasta—rigatoni, country style—had beans, greens and sausage, and we immediately wished we had ordered the penne alla vodka, tubes slathered in a light tomato sauce, ordered by the next table over. This is a friendly place, so we negotiated a trade with them, since nobody finishes anything here. The penne won hands down.
After that steak platter, a pyramid of strawberry shortcake followed, approximately the size of a Dachshund, and six house-made chocolate cannoli, the ends dipped in crushed pistachio nuts, which, in the context of what we ate, seemed almost Spartan in size.
On a follow-up visit, I sampled the stuffed artichoke (a pair of them, actually, each stuffed with about a pound of seasoned, buttery breadcrumbs) and spaghetti with softball-size meatballs. As Dean Martin’s “That’s Amore” played on the sound system, I felt a twinge of guilt. There are lots of hungry people in this world. I’m not usually one of them.
Allow me to ward you off one or two items: the bland shrimp fra diavolo, which could use more heat, and Carmine’s salad (unless you breed rabbits for a living). There’s no such thing as too much garlic, in my opinion, but there can definitely be too much lettuce.
In the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace, 473-9700. Open 11 a.m.-midnight daily. Dinner for four, $75-$169.