OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — I had seen some recent TV ads for Carrabba’s Italian Grill and it looked interesting to me, but I had never been. So, when I received an invitation to the restaurant chain’s First Tastes event near The Packer offices, I was intrigued.
Having been a longtime patron of Italian restaurant chain Olive Garden, and local Italian joints such as Johnny Cascone’s and Villa Capri — along with Kansas City pizza staple Minsky’s — I looked forward to seeing if Carrabba’s could stack up.
Besides being struck by the nice atmosphere Carrabba’s had, I felt the service there really stood out. I’m not sure if it was due to the fact that the staff was going “above and beyond” for the April 29 event, but if the everday service level is anywhere near what it was then, Carrabba’s service beats all competitors.
But now, getting to the most important part: the food.
The first thing I noticed when the first dish, an appetizer called Gnocci Fritti, came out was it’s freshness. The Italian potato dumplings, breaded with panko bread crumbs, tasted delicious when I tried them alone, as they were fried but only lightly so, and tossed with romano cheese.
Not being a fan of marinara dipping sauce, I hesitantly tried it with the Gnocci Fritti to get a sense of the tomatoes and spices Carrabba’s uses, and I was pleasantly surprised. The server had referred to it as “spicy marinara” and I don’t like really spicy stuff, but the tomatoes, onions and spices in this marinara really made it.
Next up: Linguine with Clams, in a white wine cream sauce and featuring fresh scallions. The scallions and the sauce weren’t overbearing, allowing the taste of the pasta and clams to really come through.
Mahi Wulfe, topped with fresh artichokes and sundried tomatoes, with a housemade basil lemon butter sauce, was third on the sampling list. Of course, in being a frequent guest at various Italian restaurants, I was accustomed to the inclusion of sundried tomatoes on menu items, which has become a trendy thing.
I wasn’t prepared, however, for the artichokes, and if this dish was any indication, more chains need to add artichokes to their offerings because they tasted phenomenal.
Overland Park Carrabba’s proprietor Chris Stobaugh told me the chain emphasizes fresh produce and sources it from all over, but he specifically mentioned California, and I definitely envisioned these artichokes coming straight out of a Castroville field.
I was least impressed with Carrabba’s Conchiglie (pronounced “con-kee-lyeh”) Bolognese, which didn’t have any produce, other than tomatoes in the meat sauce. The meat sauce wasn’t as tasty as, say, Villa Capri or Johnny Cascone’s, and the freshly grated ricotta salata on top was OK but wasn’t prevalent enough.
There was no under-impressing going on with the next dish, Pollo Sorrento, however. The chicken with prosciutto and fontina cheese ... yeah, that was all good ... but the fresh eggplant and port wine fig sauce featuring apples made this dish melt in my mouth. I talked to a couple of other patrons after the event and they told me it was their favorite dish at First Tastes as well.
The Penne Romano with Wood-Grilled Chicken didn’t have much chicken in it. Being a big carnivore myself, this concerned me at first, but by the time I finished the dish, I actually felt Carrabba’s could remove the chicken and make this a more vegetarian offering because the fresh sautéed mushrooms and roasted garlic black pepper cream sauce were so good, I didn’t really feel I needed the chicken. The dish also featured red bell peppers. I’m not a pepper fan but the peppers really did add to the eye-appeal.
Mini Cannolis with pistachios and Apple Crostata with ice cream finished off First Tastes, and the couple I chatted with afterwards was so impressed that they rated the Apple Crostata as a “10” on Carrabba’s scale of 1 to 8. I agreed, giving it an “8.5.” I rated the Pollo Sorrento as the top dish featuring veggies, giving it an “8.”
The event was introducing patrons to new menu selections to Carrabba’s Pasta Seconds menu, which allows patrons to order select pasta dishes and get a second portion of it free, either to share with other guests at the table, or to go. Each dish also comes with choice of a soup or side salad, for $13.
I definitely wouldn’t turn down seconds of the dishes featuring the most produce. The produce suppliers to Carrabba’s definitely have done themselves proud.