The four of us have settled into our expansive four-top at Carmine’s when a food runner hustles by with what looks, from a distance, like a car battery on a tray. On closer inspection, it’s a squat tower of lasagna, a mammoth slab scaled to the oversized dimensions of the 20,000-square-foot family-style restaurant in Penn Quarter. “That’s the size of my chest!” exclaims my friend, Jim, whose own dimensions could be described as family-sized.
Carmine’s portions present a problem for eaters like Jim and the rest of us red-sauce connoisseurs. Sure, we place a premium on value, just like everybody else who has watched his disposable income shrink faster than the Democrats’ popularity. But we also value variety; we prefer a spread of meatballs slathered in red sauce, spiedini alla Romana pungent with anchovies, hot Italian sausages paired with peppers and onions, bitter escarole spiked with garlic and lemon, chicken parm hot and gooey with cheese and sauce. We want a taste of it all at our table.
At Carmine’s, you have to be more selective when ordering from the menus affixed to the wall—or be prepared to walk out of the place with enough leftovers to start a food bank. I’ve seen people leave with aluminum containers that look as if someone in the kitchen just put foil over a steam-table tray and handed it to a customer. These aren’t leftovers as much as full entrees left untouched. When a friend and I ordered the chicken scaloppini on an earlier visit, we counted four whole pounded chicken breasts, more than half of which I took home to harden in the fridge.
On this latest visit, we knew we had over-ordered as soon as our “appetizer” of Carmine’s salad reached the table. It was the Staten Island ferry of apps, a lumbering plate heaped with greens, cubed salami, provolone, pitted olives, celery, pepperoncini and God knows what else, drizzled with a sort of creamy red-wine vinegar dressing. It was a like having your salad and antipasti all at once, and I wolfed down my portion as if I wouldn’t eat again for a week. I tried to remember we still had two entrees coming, including that torso-sized lasagna.
A few days earlier, I ordered the lasagna at Casa Nonna, another family-style joint that recently opened in the District. Served in an ivory colored gratin dish, the entrée is downright modest in proportion compared to its counterpart at Carmine’s. It’s also more refined. Chef Amy Brandwein makes her pasta in-house, which she layers with mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses, béchamel, and a ragu studded with diced carrots, which help provide this exquisite sweetness to the savory sauce. It’s lasagna designed to impress with its chef-driven sophistication, not its sheer volume.
I could say the same thing for Casa Nonna in general. The operation, housed in the former California Pizza Kitchen space at Connecticut Avenue and N Street NW, is a family-style restaurant that should have a sign outside that says: “Drop the Kids at McDonald’s Before Entering.”
Unlike many other representatives of the volume-focused dining category, the place is sleek and sensual, with lots of dark wood accented with copper veneers, a terra cotta floor, a marble pizza bar, and shelf after shelf stacked with Italian products and jarred pastas, all of which are underlit to inject an air of status to these quotidian ingredients. I’ve seen cocktail lounges that weren’t this moody.
It’s a lot easier for a single person to eat at Casa Nonna than at Carmine’s. The appetizers can be consumed solo without fear of a hospital visit and a stomach pump. The pizzas, each produced in a wood-burning oven, are perfect for lone diners. Even the entrees, intended to serve up to three, wouldn’t require previous experience on the competitive eating circuit to wolf down their contents alone (though you’d have to be really, really hungry). This strikes me as “family-style” by way of L.A., not Jersey.
The pizzas are worth a spin, whether you decide to split them or not. Described as Neapolitan-style on the menu, my Margherita looked more like the product of New York; its crust was flat as far as the eye could see, and almost gravity-defying, like a sturdy, coal-fired New Haven pie. Despite its crispiness, the slice was salty and satisfyingly chewy. I was impressed —impressed enough, in fact, that I was taken aback when I noticed the puffy cornicione on a second visit, as if the kitchen had suddenly discovered the benefits of extended dough fermentation. Whatever my Nonna pie (stuffed zucchini flowers, fried egg, mozz) gained in soft pliability, it lost virtually nothing in chewiness or flavor.
Brandwein worked with Roberto Donna for years, both at Galileo downtown and at Bebo Trattoria in Crystal City, and while her kitchen at Nonna focuses more on the humble charms of Southern Italian cooking, the chef cooks as if she were still in Donna’s higher-end establishments. Her attention to detail with red sauces is nearly obsessive, not only in her ability to neutralize the acidity of the tomatoes but also in her determination to find the right pasta for each sauce. Her fried calamari is fork-tender; her pasta well-salted and cooked al dente; even her broccoli rabe makes me pay attention, its bitterness stripped away to reveal a deep, peppery flavor. The only mistake I tasted was the dry, overcooked chicken in the piccata.
Carmine’s track record wasn’t as spotless. That big n’ tall lasagna proved rather tasty, its flavors pumped up by the tartness of the twin sauces (both fresh marinara and meaty red) and the decided tang of the ricotta. Tomato tartness, in fact, was a defining characteristic of the red sauces at Carmine’s, probably because the same sauces can be served over any number of pastas. I’d avoid the stuffed artichoke, a gloppy and gritty affair, as well as that trough of chicken scaloppini, which tastes more like chicken and dumplings, even with the lemon-butter sauce. Just go straight to the snowball-sized meatballs, rounds of moist beef and veal that pair perfectly with the tart sauce.
What fascinates me about Carmine’s and Casa Nonna are the paths that each traveled to reach D.C. The New York-based Alicart Restaurant Group, which own Carmine’s, has been set on world domination for a few years now, to judge by the introduction to its Carmine’s Family-Style Cookbook from 2008: “Jeffrey [Bank, the CEO] currently has expansion plans on the drawing boards for restaurants in Garden City, Long Island, New York; Las Vegas, Nevada; Washington, D.C.; and Orlando, Florida. In reality, Carmine’s could go anywhere.”
Though Casa Nonna’s BLT Restaurants group is also New York-based, there was no similar consensus about growing its footprint. The firm apparently had to go through a divorce before it could launch in D.C. Co-founder Jimmy Haber told Crain’s New York Business that he wanted to expand the company to include more recession-friendly restaurants, like Casa Nonna, but that partner/chef Laurent Tourondel resisted bringing in other high-profile toques to lead the Italian kitchens. The partners separated, dividing the empire between them.
What on earth could be so special about family-style restaurants that one group would want to seed them around the country, while another would be willing to break up a hugely successful company just to open one in the District? Part of the answer to that question lies in the history of family-style restaurants. They have their roots in the Southern Italian families who, in the late 19th century, started immigrating to the Bronx, to Brooklyn, to New Jersey, to South Philly, any place where large clans could gather around the table on Sunday afternoon after church and dig into homemade platters of pasta and meat sauce.
Dirt poor back in the mother country, these immigrants discovered that the pantry in America wasn’t as bare. Long before McDonald’s came along, the eateries opened by these transplants were the original proponents of super-sizing. “Everything came in portions that would have fed a family for a week back in Salerno,” writes John and Galina Mariani in The Italian-American Cookbook. “Meatballs grew to the size of tennis balls. Six-inch pizzas grew to twelve inches, inundated with ingredients Italian pizza-makers would never dream of putting on their pies.”
Contemporary Americans certainly aren’t as poor as the Italian immigrants back in the 19th century, but we seem to feel like it in this stalled economy. This likely explains the hospitality industry’s current fascination with family-style restaurants: They know we’re looking not only for value but also for a chance to sit around a large table with friends and family, remembering that the important things in life can’t be purchased from a menu.
Carmine’s, 425 7th St. NW, (202) 737-7770
Casa Nonna, 1250 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 629-2505
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