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No Bambino, No Problemo

Carmine's offers up some truly excellent Italian dishes—but leave the kids at home.

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ALEX SPRINGER
  • Alex Springer

I try to avoid bringing my gastronaut-in-training when I visit restaurants like Carmine's (2477 Fort Union Blvd., 801-948-4468, carmines.restaurant) because it's clearly designed for an older, dare I say, more sophisticated clientele. That being said, sometimes a guy just wants to take his family out for an Italian meal that didn't come from Olive Garden. When visiting an establishment that runs a bit closer to the fancy end of the spectrum, my family and I stick to our established dining protocols. We show up before the dinner rush and help our little buckaroo stay on her best behavior, which typically makes our attempt to respect everyone else's dining experience successful.

All the same, it's interesting to see how having a toddler at the table impacts the kind of service you get at some places. There's a quote from Joss Whedon's show Firefly about how you truly meet someone when you hold them over the edge of a volcano. In the dining world, you truly meet a restaurant when you arrive with someone who still has all her baby teeth.

The service at Carmine's wasn't what I would call bad, but it wasn't particularly attentive, considering there were only two other full tables during our visit. It's something that I don't think twice about when the restaurant is slammed, but when it's evident that the staff has things well in hand, I start to wonder why the server sounds so put out when I ask for menu recommendations. It's clearly not an issue of not having any exciting food to recommend—Carmine's is packing some serious firepower on the menu—which led me to believe that the bored delivery was a byproduct of my decision to bring a kid to the table.

Hiccups like that aside, the food here is fantastic. Their pizza oven wasn't operational during our visit—Chef Carmine was out of town, and pizza production comes to a standstill when he's not on the premises. It was unfortunate, but it also gives me an excuse to come back and sample the pizza menu.

Carmine's menu is arranged in courses—appetizers, primi piatti and secondi piatti—which can make for a fun way to create your own traditional Italian meal. The pasta menu ended up trumping the appetizers and meat courses for us, so we decided to split a three-course meal that included lasagna classica ($22), fettucine allo scoglio ($32) and salmon-stuffed ravioli ($28). No one at the table regretted this decision. The lasagna, pictured above, arrives on a plate emblazoned with the red, green and white of the Italian flag, proudly flaunting its rich pedigree. You can tell it's going to be good because it looks the way lasagna ought to look—thick and slightly slouched as it buckles from a ponderous bulk of meat, cheese and red sauce. A few bites into this Italian staple, and it's clear that this is a dish with a heritage—it's obviously the heir to a forgotten royal bloodline, fractured and scattered by conflict, betrayal and time itself.

The fettuccine allo scoglio, so named for the seafood mixture that is typically found among the rocks of coastal bluffs—think mussels, clams and shrimp—comes complete with half a lobster tail and is quite literally swimming in a garlicky butter sauce that really makes you understand why seafood and clarified butter are such good friends. This is a dish that is both fun to eat and every bit as decadent as it sounds.

I was a little nervous about the ravioli beforehand, but much of this apprehension comes from the fact that ravioli dishes at most higher end Italian places come with stingy portions. I didn't find that at Carmine's. This creamy beast of a dish comes served with a dollop of caviar and thin slices of smoked salmon—it's a mainline of pure, uncut luxury.

As our taste buds were reeling from the expert-level presentation and flavors of each dish that we tried, we decided to go all in and order some dessert. You can never go wrong with tiramisu ($9), so that's where we headed. It had come widely hyped online, and we were looking forward to a sharp and sweet end to our meal.

But then the dessert arrived in a plastic cup, I shit you not. My guess is that they were currently out of the dessert glassware that I had seen pictured online, but the fast food presentation of this most classic of Italian desserts was laughably out of place—we had just eaten smoked salmon stuffed ravioli topped with caviar, after all. Flavor-wise, this cup-o-tiramisu was a little dry, but nothing overly egregious. It was just strangely incongruous with the vibe of the restaurant, making me once again think that the back of house consiglieri were sending us a not-so-subtle message about our own weirdly incongruous presence in their domain.

Despite a few odd service issues that I'd chalk up to an off day while the owner was off site, the food at Carmine's is magnificent—even when it inexplicably arrives in a plastic cup.

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