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If you're like me, you pass by roadside beacons like Carrabba's, Bertucci's and Macaroni Grill and despite your indifference to Italian-American food (I hear the entire February issue of Gourmet is devoted to the cuisine though I've yet to receive my copy in the mail and am in no hurry to), wonder what they're like because you can't resist the allure of a chain, any chain. I mean, aren't they all kind of Olive Gardens at their core?

I was in the wilds of East Brunswick, testing out the new GPS I bought (as a gift) for Christmas to see if it could find Hong Kong Supermarket (a point of interest according to the GPS) and afterwards, Makkoli, a Japanese buffet (not found by name in the GPS). Before I could reach my all-you-can-eat sashimi goal, I was lured by the starchy promises of Carrabba's.

"It's more upscale than Olive Garden," James promised, apparently an old pro from dinners with his parents in Northern Virginia. That's not saying much, though I get what he meant. No photos on the menu or zingy folded cardboard promotions on the table, and no free salads and breadsticks. Everything's a la carte and a few bucks more than a suburban OG (though not necessarily a Manhattan one). I ended up with a $10 glass of wine at the bar, which seemed steep by chain standards, though it's not like anyone forced me to order the Coppola claret. I switched to the $9 quartino of chianti special with dinner. Oh, but it's classy because they pour the wine into an individual glass carafe for you dole out as you like.

At the ungodly hour of 6pm on a Saturday it was family central. I knew what I was getting into. However, I'm still not sure why parents bring kids little enough to need distractions out to eat at places where sitting relatively still is required (maybe I'm just jealous because we rarely went to sit down restaurants when I was a child. And other than maybe Sizzler, fast casual chains didn't exist yet. We would occasionally go to Heidi's, a local favorite with a Swiss-themed gift shop and dazzling pastry case). The toddler with a DVD player at eye level on the table disturbed me much more than the girl walking her plush pony up the mini blinds near to us. At least physical toys require some degree of imagination.

Carrabba's crab cakes

The food was standard issue and plated in sparse lonely ways. Crab cakes seemed awkwardly shoved to one side with an awful lot of real estate devoted to the sauce.

Carrabba's lobster ravioli

My lobster ravioli looked like I'd heated up a frozen pack from Trader Joe's and tossed it on a plate, more in a hurry to catch 24 (sure, I'll still watch Jack Bauer torturing people) even though I'm DVRing it. Ok, there were some herb bits scattered on top, which is more garnish than dole out at home.

Carrabba's chocolate dream

Carrabba's has totally tapped into the mini dessert trend, offering $2.50 "bacino," which translates to creamy parfaits in glorified shot glasses. I wasn't biting as can be seen in this photo of the Chocolate Dream, a bit of fluffy overkill by way of Kahlua brownie with chocolate mousse and syrup. I could've sworn there was ice cream in there. It definitely needed ice cream.

I hate macaroni, which will prevent me from trying a Macaroni Grill maybe ever (I can only picture noodles dripping with Velveeta over flames). Bertucci's, I might give a chance. Though the chain I've always meant to visit but haven't is P.F. Chang's. Looks like the closest one in the strangely named town of West New York, NJ,. Maybe I'll put the GPS to use this weekend.

One thing Carrabba's has over Olive Garden is that if you mention them on Twitter they'll start following you. Brands connecting through tweets is one thing, but when Damages' Patty Hewes started following me I got kind of scared.

Carrabba's * 335 Rt.18, New Brunswick, NJ

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Justin #

    To be honest, while Macaroni Grill isn’t incredible, it’s not bad and it doesn’t have much to do with Macaroni. Rather it’s more of a Pasta place, and unlike Carabba’s they have these large Garlic Bread-esque rolls (like a roll, but much larger, meant for two or more people). I recommend the Penne Rustica.

    January 14, 2009
  2. Justin: Next time I have the urge for pasta and I’m in the suburbs, I will think of Macaroni Grill.

    January 16, 2009
  3. emmy #

    WOW…you might be the snobbiest restaurant reviewer ever. Congrats.

    August 12, 2009
  4. emmy: Thanks! You do realize this was about Carrabba’s, right?

    August 12, 2009
  5. Herm #

    Why does someone who hates macaroni and doesn’t know enough about food to figure out what might be good in a place like Carrabba’s (you never, ever order ravioli and any restaurant unless there is a master chef in the kitchen) bother writing about food?

    June 6, 2012

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