425 7th St. NW | Cuisine: Italian American | $$$ | ★★★☆☆
Tourists strolling around D.C. can restore their energies at Carmine’s, Penn Quarter’s largest restaurant. The family-style eatery comprises over 20,000 square feet and includes nine private rooms, with room for more than 700 diners.
The late restaurateur Arthur Cutler built a small empire of popular, conceptually rare restaurants that struck New York City’s dining scene. In 1990, he opened Carmine’s as an old-fashioned Southern Italian restaurant, targeting families and large parties with its welcoming aura. The restaurant even offers an extensive gluten-free menu. An indoor replica of 7th Street’s energy, the New York City import bursts with joyful diners and racing staff.
The restaurant currently has two locations in New York City, as well as others in Atlantic City and the Bahamas. The Carmine’s in New Jersey’s theater district was ranked the sixth-highest -earning eatery in the country by Restaurant & Institutions magazine, serving approximately 800,000 meals last year.
The neighborhood’s foot traffic portended major success and complemented reservations with a steady stream of walk-ins. Alicart Restaurant Group Chief Executive Jeffrey Bank seized the site’s commercial potential as he expanded the chain’s East Coast locations. The Washington location offered an unusual combination of daytime workers, families and sightseers. Dimly lit and dominated by red-toned variations, the restaurant evokes a 1920s flair. Imagine a traditional Italian joint merged with a theme park.
There is even a souvenir-stocked stand where you can get Carmine’s baseball caps and t-shirts. Although it is large-scale and systematic, Carmine’s preserves regional winks, hidden in the billboard menus hanging on the walls and advertising red-sauce staples.
Entering the main dining room, which was covered in black-and-white Dolce Vita photos in mismatched frames, I caught a glimpse of the mammoth portions meant for sharing. Even the most persistent appetites will struggle to tackle such large portions.
Both the cold and hot antipasto platters are exquisite — and colossal — samplers for the table. Of all the appetizers, these generous trays proved to be extraordinary. The cold version features seafood salad of scallops, shrimp and octopus; prosciutto cotto rolls filled with fontina cheese and roasted red pepper; marinated cremini mushrooms; fresh ricotta crostini with a hint of honey; focaccia sandwiches of melted provolone; fava bean and pancetta; and a romano and black pepper breadstick with sliced prosciutto.
The hot interpretation is just as vast, with multiple innovative creations: the zuppa di mussels, of a classic simplicity with their white-wine infusion; spinach and artichoke dip with mascarpone and Romano cheese; fried raviolini dipped in spicy marinara; eggplant rollatini,stuffed with ricotta cheese; clams oreganata baked with house breadcrumbs; fresh calzone filled with grilled chicken and peppers; broccoli rabe with sweet fennel sausage; and a supreme capellini pie fried with salami and green peas.
The old-family-recipe formula smoothly translates into some of Carmine’s classic pastas and house specialties. The veal scaloppine marsala ($36.95) featured thinly sliced breaded cutlets cooked in butter, lemon and white wine sauce. The shrimp parmigiana ($38.95), cooked to perfection in tangy marinara and Parmesan cheese, arrived with the rigatoni with sausage and broccoli ($29.50), richly textured and effortlessly delightful. Also excellent, the penne alla vodka ($32.95) was a velvety yet fiery concoction of cream, butter, red peppers and tomato.
Monday’s special chicken alla romana ($38.95) proved the meal’s indisputable star. The dish arrived as a breaded breast covered in mozzarella over a sauteed-broccoli bed, all sealed in a buttery white wine and caper sauce. Other timeless gems are the fried calamari ($31.95) and the spaghetti and meatballs ($31.95), immense, moist and peppery. The portobello parmigiana ($19.95), served in piquant marinara and flowing Parmesan, is a rare jewel, packed with delicate notes. Dessert genuinely seemed improbable once we finished our gigantic meal. Somehow we managed to split the crumbly bread pudding ($18.95), soaked in custard.
Once the sugar rush took over, we ordered the chocolate cannoli ($18.95). The chocolate-coated shells, filled with homemade, silky ricotta and chocolate chip cream and dipped in pistachios, outplayed all competitors. The Titanic ($28.95) is Carmine’s homegrown version of the classic banana split, a chocolate torte topped with vanilla ice cream, bananas, pineapple and nuts. Diners can have the half order, a serious recommendation for those intending to avoid a sugar coma.
Large portions meant for sharing elevate Carmine’s prices. Large parties benefit from such an affordable alternative to classic Italian-American fare. However, for those uninterested in family-style portions, the menu’s average quality might not be as tempting for a lower price.
Hefty to-go bags are a given thanks to Carmine’s colossal helpings. When Cutler created the restaurant, his one goal was to re-create the Italian-American wedding feast. The Sunday dinner sensation provides comfort for those looking to have a casual, friendly banquet. Yes, the proportions of the food really do match such a description. The blizzard of garlic and marinara might invade other flavors, leaving little room for craftier zests.
Although formulaic and unrefined, Carmine’s possesses the merit of countering the small-plate-centered haute comfort food, proving there is nothing quite as heartening as Italian grandmothers’ cuisines.