Carmello's Gave Us Our Moneys Worth
by Jennifer Jackson
The problem with countries that are renowned for their cooking - Italy, China, France - is that it's such well travelled ground for the restaurateur to revisit.
Not only must he live up to the grand traditions, he must compete with all the hot trends as well.
Carmello's on the Sparks Street Mall acquits itself pretty well under the circumstances. As is the style these days, it's done in russets, ochre and mustard tones. It has high ceilings, hardwood floors, and chairs reminiscent of 1940s government-issue oak, as is also the style these days.
It's a fairly large restaurant, with a huge patio on the mall just west of Bank Street.
And it has an enormous menu covering antipasti, thin-crust pizzas, medium-crust pizzas, pastas (further grouped as to the sauce: tomato-based, creamy tomato, cream, and garlic and oil) and, finally, secondi or entrees covering various veal and chicken dishes with vegetables.
The bread was home-made, yeasty and very fresh, flecked with some dried herb, which blindfolded we would not have guessed it was herb bread.
Had we decided against the butter for the bread, spiced olive oil and a bottle of good balsamic vinegar graced each table.
As a starter, my companion had the bruschetta, fungi, which was delicious, finely chopped mushrooms with various herbs and what appeared to be bits of carrot and zucchini. There was something intriguing and unusual here, too - fennel maybe? A touch of orange peel?
I had the grilled calamari, a house specialty ($6.95). Two grilled squid, stuffed with seasoned bread, arrived on a bed of greens in a light, appealing, oil and vinegar dressing. It was enough to comprise dinner on its own.
The grilling was done quickly and the calamari were tender. The stuffing was good and it is an offbeat way to serve this old favorite, but I'm not sure it's necessarily an improvement on the usual rings.
We went on to our main course: My companion had spinach fettuccini in a garlic, oil and onion sauce, with prosciutto and a piece of grilled filet of chicken on top.
I ordered the veal marsala, which I regard as one of the acid tests of an Italian kitchen, not because it is difficult but because it is difficult to do well. Normally, paillards of tender veal are breaded or floured and fried quickly, then served in a sauce of reduced veal stock and sweet marsala wine.
The veal here was tender, obviously of good quality, but somehow too much moisture crept into the cooking. The meal came with broccoli, mushrooms, summer squash and baby tomatoes. which were fresh, but a little limp.
For desert the house specialty of double chocolate meringue was sold out, so I tried the gelati, a collection of small scoops of various flavors, served with amaretti biscuits. These were refreshing and the vanilla was just vibrant, one of the best I've had in years.
My companion had the espresso creme brulee which he found smooth and creamy, with the coffee flavor concentrated in the sugar crust.
The meal for two, with a half-liter of wine, came to $67 not including tip. It wasn't a brilliant meal but we got our money's worth.