Corporate Italian restaurants are everywhere these days in the Treasure Valley.
And for the most part, the dining experience at these places is essentially the same, meaning that recordings of Italian crooners often blare overhead and standard Italian-American offerings such as shrimp scampi and chicken Marsala are the norm.
Carrabba's Italian Grill, a national chain restaurant that recently opened in Meridian, strives to be different with its rustic, Italian-inspired menu and polished service.
Servers deliver varying shades of the same corporate spiel about the restaurant's greatness. They also mix nine spices and herbs into good olive oil at the table—intended to go with the gratis hard-crusted bread.
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The interior design features framed prints of the Carrabba family (founders of the restaurant in Texas) and plastic, leaf-draped wood arbors that hang over spacious booths.
Carrabba's menu boasts many recognizable Italian dishes, ranging from lasagna to antipasti to minestrone.
If diners read between the lines of standard offerings, though, they can find gems such as lightly steamed Canadian mussels in Pernod ($9.79) and calamari Ricardo ($7.99), a plate of flash-fried breaded squid rings topped with creamy lemon sauce and diced pepperoncini and red bell pepper.
One night, we paired glasses of refreshingly dry Estancia Pinot Grigio ($7) with this tasty squid appetizer.
Most entrees come with soup or salad, yet during a near triple-digit heat spell, a hot bowl of hearty minestrone seemed out of the question.
But we appreciated the chilled bowls of anchovy-laced Caesar salad (with crunchy croutons) and a house salad of chopped romaine, kalamatas, pepperoncini and carrot splashed with creamy Parmesan dressing.
After our salad plates were cleared, out came entrees of veal piccata ($15.99) and chicken Marsala ($14.99).
The latter was a fork-tender, grilled pollo breast smothered with dark Marsala wine sauce, sautéed mushrooms and thin slivers of salty prosciutto. A pile of garlicky mashed red potatoes was served on the side.
Besides the fact there was nary a caper in sight, the pan-seared veal medallions were good and ultra-tender under a layer of lemon butter sauce, positioned next to perfectly cooked broccoli.
We tagged on an order of tagliarini picchi pacchiu ($8.99), a deep bowl of skinny pasta (somewhere between capellini and fettuccine on the thickness scale) tossed with chunky tomatoes, fresh basil, olive oil and a tinge of garlic. This basic pasta dish offered a good taste of summer.
We were too full to try the "famous tiramisu," as one server put it.
A few weeks later, we showed up again for dinner and were greeted by a friendly hostess and a hilarious crooner version of Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun."
We decided to start with shrimp scampi ($9.49) and the bruschetta of the day ($6.99).
On this evening, grilled slices of rustic bread were smeared with pesto, chopped Roma tomato and shredded Romano cheese.
Shrimp scampi is a deceptively easy dish to make yet most places around town tend to overcook the prawns.
We were pleased to receive six tender tiger prawns pooled in a lemon and herb-kicked white wine sauce with a slight garlic finish. The soggy slices of garlic bread that came on the side didn't impress us as much.
Our helpful waiter offered to split an entrée of spaghetti and meatballs ($10.99) for us. Plump beef meatballs came entangled with al dente pasta in an unremarkable tomato sauce. A fresh dusting of grated Romano cheese (administered by our server) definitely helped to jazz up the lackluster pasta. A small Caesar salad was involved in the deal.
This time we saved room for tiramisu ($5.49), a creamy stratum of amaretto and espresso-drenched ladyfingers, whipped mascarpone and dark chocolate shavings.
As far as corporate Italian dining goes, Carrabba's seems to do a better job than most of its competition, both in service and cuisine.
James Patrick Kelly is the Idaho Statesman's restaurant critic. E-mail him at email@example.com.