1645 Niagara Falls Blvd., Amherst, NY 14228
Web: Carrabba's Italian Grill
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Amherst Chains Italian
"We liked the Calamari Ricardo, a fried calamari dish with flecks of spicy, fresh yellow pepper mixed in; it had a nice kick, though it could have used a tomato sauce dip."
In the world of chain Italian restaurants, there's a middle ground between the ubiquitous low-end Olive Gardens and the uncommon high-end Maggiano's - a territory occupied by mall and plaza places such as Bravo! Cucina Italiana and Carrabba's Italian Grill. Located on Niagara Falls Boulevard near the border of Amherst and Tonawanda, Carrabba's comes across a lot better than Olive Garden or Bravo: it's decorated as nicely as almost any Italian restaurant in town, staffed by professional-looking servers who do a pretty good job, and though there's little doubt that it's part of a chain, the prices and little touches of class in the presentation and menu set it apart from the pack.
The positive vibes start before the meat of the meal really gets underway. Though the menu is short - a single page of food, with the reverse side dedicated to wines, beverages, and desserts - it makes a good impression with traditional fonts and a straightforward layout. There aren't any huge surprises on the front page, which starts with fried calamari, zucchini, and mozzarella dishes, then continues with a technically samey list of soups, salads, and entrees, but Carrabba's manages to make its choices sound interesting without resorting to cheesy marketing gimmickry: dishes such as the seafood-heavy Linguine Pescatore evoke the restaurant's Italian heritage, while the Insalata Johnny Rocco and other similarly homey dishes hint at a more Italian-American sensibility. Similarly, the loaf of fresh-cooked bread that arrives with a bottle of olive oil is unmistakably Italian, but then you'll come across items such as the red or white "Italian Sangrias," which borrow from other cultures. We really enjoyed the rich, sweet Blackberry Sangria wine punch, which arrived with lemon and orange slices on top - we had a glass ($6.50), but it would have been worth ordering by the pitcher ($26) for a group of drinkers.
On the appetizer side, we liked the Calamari Ricardo ($7), a fried calamari dish with flecks of spicy, fresh yellow pepper mixed in, and a cup of lemon butter on the side. Between the yellow peppers and a little black pepper in the batter, this variation on traditional fried calamari had a nice kick that we really enjoyed, though the dip would have been better as a spicy tomato sauce. Grilled Bruschette ($8), a place of six very lightly grilled slices of bread with a tomato and sliced cheese topping cup, was comparatively unremarkable and expensive given the simplicity of the ingredients and preparation.
Salads were solid. A House Caesar Salad ($6) was actually something close to beautiful, topped with a large pile of freshly shredded parmesan and mixed with equally fresh romaine, croutons, and dressing. Larger than we would have expected, the Caesar was also one of the most satisfying items we ordered. By comparison, the aforementioned Insalata Johnny Rocco ($13) was a large bowl of field greens, olives, roasted red peppers, and grated firm ricotta cheese, topped with grilled and peppered shrimp and scallops - heavier on the scallops than the shrimp, though not huge on either, and not anything special in flavor.
Soups were a little less impressive. A cup of red, chicken and carrot-filled Mama Mandola's Sicilian Chicken Soup ($4) initially intrigued us with a little spicy kick, but the broth proved watery and lacked in depth as we continued to work through the bowl; the pieces of chicken were numerous but a little plain. The Minestrone ($6) was pretty close to beautiful, a wide white dish-like bowl served with an abundance of colorful vegetables - tomatoes, carrots, beans, and more - in a fine, light-brown broth; the flavor wasn't anything remarkable, mediocre in fact by comparison with places such as Trattoria Aroma and Chef's, but the look of the dish would thrill any fan of veggies.
Entrees ranged from good to disappointing. To get a good sense of different menu items, one of us ordered the Johnny Platter ($18), containing the mushroom- and prosciutto-topped Sirloin Marsala, the goat cheese and sundried tomato-topped Chicken Bryan, and the Mezzaluna, some half moon-shaped ravioli with spinach, ricotta, and a little chicken inside, served in a tomato cream sauce. The sirloin was well-dressed in sauce, but the flavor of the meat was bland, and between the so-so beef quality and medium well-ish prep - not quite to our spec or preference - it wasn't great. Carrabba's Chicken Bryan was cooked wonderfully, however allowing the poultry to remain moist inside with grill char marks outside, and the goat cheese topping was good; the Mezzaluna was merely okay, arriving as an indiscernible yellowish pile of sauce and cheese on the plate, and its flavors little better than a soft, meatless ravioli side dish.
Another order, the Chicken Trio ($21), received more polarized comments from those who tried it at our table. This plate included another Chicken Bryan, alongside a Chicken Marsala - basically the same as the Sirloin Marsala, but with bird instead of beef - and a Pollo Rosa Maria, a stuffed piece of chicken with prosciutto and fontina cheese ins, mushrooms and basil lemon butter on top. The person who originally ordered the plate tried the items and didn't like any of them enough to finish them, so she swapped with one of us who ordered the Veal Parmesan ($17.50), a large, flat cutlet of veal topped with too little sauce and a fine but not great layer of parmesan cheese. This plate arrived looking dry and boring, its broccoli side like it had been heat-lamped for a while, and the veal was only okay; it's rare to find this dish served so dry and lacking in sauce. We ultimately preferred the varied chicken dishes on the Trio plate to the Veal; the flavors of Carrabba's sauces and cheeses are surely better suited to some tastes than others, but the tenderness of its poultry was consistently good.
Dessert for the evening was a Limoncello Bread Pudding ($7.50), which appeared on the evening's specials menu, and intrigued three of us enough to order it before our appetizers even arrived. Topped with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream, the bread had the advantages of arriving nicely cooked to a golden brown rather than a char, and with a delicate lemon flavor that obviously came from the limoncello or something similar. We only say "something similar" because there was little if any taste of limoncello's characteristic alcohol noticeable in the sweet, moist bread, which was otherwise dominated by the ice cream's flavor, consequently coming across as more plain than we'd expected from the description. If the menu had called it this dish "lemon cake with ice cream," what arrived might have been impressive rather than a little underwhelming.
Our overall impression of Carrabba's is somewhat nuanced: the meal discussed above was the second visit for some members of our group and the first for others, but everyone's impressions were in the 2- to 2.5-star range, with some suggesting that they could lean a little higher or lower depending on the items. No one was interested in rushing back, but no one hated it, either; it just falls into the category of nice-looking Italian places with okay food, and there's no shortage of such places in Western New York. If you pick it for the decor and the drinks, then expect a fine but not fantastic meal at somewhat above average prices for a local Italian dinner, you may be pleasantly surprised.