First Look: Carmine’s

Carmine’s, an import from New York City, is a study in excess. The space is 20,000 square feet, with room for 700 diners, including nine private rooms. The menus are like billboards, posted on the walls and advertising red-sauce staples such as lasagna, garlic bread, and veal saltimbocca. It’s reminiscent of a 1920s Italian restaurant merged with a theme park—there’s even a souvenir stand up front stocked with Carmine’s T-shirts and baseball caps.

In the dining rooms, decorated with black-and-white photos in mismatched frames, portions are mammoth and meant for sharing: A side of eggplant Parmesan is the size of a shoebox; lobster fra diavolo comes in a trough so big that servers carry it with both arms. And when a recipe calls for garlic, there’s a blizzard of it. That works with an appetizer of baked clams but renders a main course of shrimp scampi very one-note.

The old-family-recipe formula translates well in a platter of crisp fried calamari with spicy marinara and spaghetti with big, peppery meatballs. Pasta is also tasty in a heap of rigatoni with white beans, sausage, and a pork-based sauce. A slab of raisin-studded bread pudding with a healthy dollop of whipped cream is a good bet, too.

At a time when small plates, local purveyors, and haute comfort food are trendy, there’s nothing refined or precious about Carmine’s—but that’s okay when it comes to spaghetti and meatballs.

This article appears in the November 2010 issue of The Washingtonian.