Growing up in Staten Island, N.Y., I participated in a cherished, memory-making family tradition: the weekly journey to my grandmother's apartment in Brooklyn, where each Sunday she served up an exquisite collection of simple, Southern Italian dishes, like thinly pounded chicken cutlets, ricotta-stuffed pasta shells, platters of steamed broccoli drizzled with tiny chunks of chopped garlic and fresh lemon juice and vinegary, onion-tossed salad topped with a hearty handful of Parmesan cheese.
Like most of the foods of our childhood, though, I took my grandmother's cooking for granted and assumed it would always be among my culinary options. It wasn't until relatively recently -- a return to New York, in fact, over Christmas vacation, where I tasted my uncle's eggplant parmigiana -- that I remembered what I was missing.
Part of the problem is that I'm 1,500 miles away from the relatives who continue to cook my now-deceased grandmother's recipes. The larger problem, though, is that this brand of cooking simply isn't available in many Dallas-Fort Worth restaurants. Yes, there are those ubiquitous, takeout-oriented Joe's Pizza and Pasta shops throughout the Metroplex; and when I'm in north Dallas, I often make a detour to Two Guys From Italy, a charming little spot off Interstate 635 and Webb Chapel Road.
For the most part, though, when we think of Italian restaurants in this area, we think of those ever-expanding chains, the ones that boast about their "authenticity" in television commercials and yet are all part of large, corporate monoliths. Indeed, in the nearly three decades since Olive Garden opened its first location in Orlando, Fla., our concept of Italian cooking has come to be almost entirely defined by these places.
In the past, I've avoided such restaurants (until recently, I had no idea that Carino's and Carrabba's were in fact different chains). But when a recent detour to the Fossil Creek neighborhood in north Fort Worth landed me at Zio's Italian Kitchen for lunch, I started wondering: Why are these places so popular? Might they be more "authentic" than I had given them credit for? And, for that matter, does "authenticity" really matter in this day and age, when the world moves at such a rapid-fire pace, and where just about everything we consume -- TV, movies, video games -- is a mash-up of other, well-established elements?
So began my six-chain, Metroplex-wide odyssey. This survey could hardly be described as scientific: I ate at these places only once, on different days and at different times; and while I originally planned to try the eggplant parm at each of the six restaurants, I gave up after two attempts -- turns out I really do prefer my uncle's above all others.
But what I did discover is that even as Italian food becomes more homogenized and generic, there are glimmers of surprise to be found -- food that would likely make even my beloved grandmother envious. Not to say I wouldn't still kill for a taste of a prosciutto, mozzarella and roasted pepper sandwich from my favorite bakery back East. But at least I know where to go when I'm pining for back home. And I think I better understand the popularity of these places, which can be traced back to my own family trips to Brooklyn on Sunday: Whether you are Irish, Asian, German or Russian, and whether the food itself is good, bad or indifferent, sometimes we all yearn for the comfort and familiarity that Italian cooking provides better than any other cuisine.
5900 S. Hulen St., Fort Worth (additional locations throughout the Metroplex); 817-346-4456
The chain: Originally called Spageddies Italian Kitchen, it was acquired by Kona Restaurant Group, which called it Johnny Carino's Italian Kitchen. They in turn sold it to Austin-based restaurant group Fired Up, which transformed it into its current Carino's. The stated mission: "To echo the feel of an Italian home." Based on the number of screaming and crying children in attendance on our recent visit, they are succeeding admirably.
The food: The appetizers were a mixed bag: The stuffed mushrooms ($7.99), filled with spinach and cheese and floating (but not drowning) in an excellent basil cream sauce, are often botched by the chains, but here the mushroom flavor comes through strongly. But the calamari ($3.99 for a half, or "mini" order) arrived at our table cold, and the filling of "Sicilian Fire Sticks" -- basically taquitos stuffed with sausage, chicken, cheese and jalapeños -- had an unpleasant texture and taste. Our entrees earned higher marks: The angel-hair pasta with artichokes and chicken ($10.99) was simple and satisfying, if a tad underseasoned. The lobster ravioli ($14.99) was surprisingly assured and flavorful, considering that you wouldn't normally order a lobster dish at the chain. We finished with a solid, not too squishy tiramisu, which arrived with chunks of milk and white chocolate on top.
The service: A little spotty. We ordered appetizers, which arrived quickly, but got so caught up in our conversation that we forgot to order our entrees -- and the waiter drifted away for a long stretch and never nudged us. In the end, dinner took us two and a half hours, more time than you'd want to spend at anybody's home, Italian or otherwise.
The authenticity factor: The decor lacks much in the way of old Italian personality, but the menu earns points for ambition. (We were especially intrigued by the Italian pot roast, but it was sold out the night we visited.)
Cost: $52.54 for two (including tip)
Rating: 6 out of 10 meatballs.
Romano's Macaroni Grill
1505 S. University Drive, Fort Worth (additional locations throughout the Metroplex); 817-336-6676, www.macaronigrill.com
The chain: Based in Dallas, Romano's Macaroni Grill is one of the oldest and most popular players in the Italian chain gang, operating since the late 1980s; there are more than 200 locations worldwide, including 11 in the Metroplex. It isn't hard to figure out why they've hung around so long: The menu is accessible, the service polite and the rosemary bread that instantly lands at your table scrumptious.
The food: Our past experiences at Macaroni Grill have been almost uniformly characterized by an excess of salt, so it's pleasing to note that the kitchen now seems to be a little less sodium-dependent. (Either that, or we ordered well.) We started with an appetizer sampler, which includes fried fresh mozzarella (excellent), bruschetta (sweet and garlicky, just the way we like it) and calamari (passable, though a tad on the rubbery side). The dinner salad ($2.49 with the entree) features fresh, crunchy greens and a wonderfully tangy Italian dressing. The real surprise of the evening, though, was the grilled halibut ($17.99), a flawlessly cooked, surprisingly hearty piece of fish that comes accompanied with a surprisingly subtle pesto risotto. It's a lovely yet unfussy dish the likes of which you might encounter in a place that charges twice as much.
The service: Attentive without being in your face, it's the kind of service many chains strive for but few achieve.
The authenticity factor: Since Grandma specialized in eggplant parmigiana, it tends to be the dish we always try when eating Italian out. The one here ($9.99), lightly breaded and fried and topped with melted fresh mozzarella, is splendid. Grandma sliced her eggplant thinner and ladled her sauce a little more generously, but we doubt she'd turn her nose up at this version.
Cost: $62.65 for two (including tip)
Rating: 8 meatballs.
4700 S.W. Loop 820, Fort Worth (additional locations throughout the Metroplex); 817-377-8091, olivegarden.com
The chain : Famed for its tangy garden salad and soft, buttery bread sticks served with every meal, Olive Garden opened in 1982 by General Mills (which also operated Red Lobster). It is the granddaddy of all Italian chains -- and the one that makes the most boastful claims about its Italian tradition of cooking. According to its website, "A restored 11th-century village ... is where Olive Garden's chefs learn the secrets of great Italian food." In practice, though, almost everything here feels a little tired and shopworn, from the food to the service to the decor. To quote one of our tablemates, midway through the meal: "That mother------ back in the kitchen did not learn to cook in Italy."
The food: We started with the appetizer sampler ($7.95 for two items), with the toasted beef ravioli and the stuffed mushrooms. The ravioli had a terrific texture, crispy, crunchy and soft all at once, but the accompanying marinara sauce overpowered it. The stuffing in the mushrooms, flecked with Italian cheeses and bits of clam, was flavorful, but the mushrooms themselves tasted bland and watery. Both items, however, were vastly superior to our other appetizer choice, the Sicilian scampi ($9.75), a mishmash of blah-tasting shrimp, chunks of flavorless tomato and a gloopy lemon and white wine sauce. The most satisfying of the entrees was the most traditional: a passable if slightly undersauced chicken parmigiana ($13.25). But the seafood Portofino ($15.25), featuring mussels, scallops, shrimp and mushrooms tossed with linguine, was criminally underseasoned -- the fish tasted liked absolutely nothing. We also ordered the chianti-braised short ribs ($15.75), three bone-dry hockey pucks of beef served over undercooked mushroom risotto. Seriously, when was this meat braised? 1991?
The service: Sweet and professional, but a little, er, immature. We asked our waitress to recommend one of the drinks on the cocktail menu. Her response: "I'm not old enough to drink."
The authenticity factor: To Olive Garden's credit, that famed salad really does remind us of Grandma's. (She, too, had a fabulous way with a red onion.) But everything else, including the lemon cream cake dessert ($5.50), tasted like it was manufactured on an assembly line.
Insult to injury: A note to restaurant managers: Even if you are bald yourself, do not make a joke about your customer's bald head as he's leaving the restaurant. He will take it the wrong way.
Cost: $106.70 for three (including tip)
Rating: 3 meatballs
Zio's Italian Kitchen
6631 Fossil Bluff Drive, Fort Worth; 817-232-3632, www.zios.com
The chain: With just 17 locations in six states, this is the most modest of our chain Italian restaurants. The first (and only) North Texas location, in the Fossil Creek section of Fort Worth, opened in 2000. The exposed kitchen lends a nice, airy touch, though the faux-Tuscan interior design feels like a cliché.
The food: We were big fans of the Italian nachos ($7.29), a giant pile of chips made from pasta dough, topped with cheeses, pepperoni, unusually spicy sausage, olives and pepperoncini, and lightly drizzled with a balsamic vinaigrette; it walked a nice line between the sweet, salty, spicy and greasy. The stuffed mushrooms, not so much. Between the overcooked mushrooms and the overwrought stuffing (which contained cream cheese, ricotta, Parmesan, sausage and pepperoni), this dish put the "mush" in mushroom. Both entrees suffered from a case of the blahs. The shrimp limone ($10.99) contained a hearty serving of reasonably plump and fresh-tasting shrimp -- better than you'd expect. But the accompanying lemon cream sauce was bland. The eggplant Parmesan ($8.99), meanwhile, was over-breaded and over-fried. Dessert was a complete bust: The Italian wedding cake ($4.99) was almost ice-cold and the cream filling tasted like CoolWhip.
The service: Pleasant, but like everything else about the place, a little shopworn and perfunctory.
The authenticity factor: Like Zio's, my Italian grandmother was also perversely fond of waxed fruit. So on this decorative note, the restaurant scores some cheesy-charm points. Otherwise, my grandmother would likely be spinning in her grave if she lived to see Italian food this bland regarded as "authentic."
Cost: $52.98 for two (including tip)
Rating: 5 meatballs
Buca di Beppo
2701 E. State Highway 114, Southlake (additional locations in Dallas and Frisco); 817-749-6262, www.bucadibeppo.com
The chain: "It translates to Joe's Basement," the waitress cheerfully explained as she led us to our table, via a brief detour through the kitchen. The idea is to re-create a classic Italian family's basement, complete with low ceilings, strings of brightly colored lights and Italian-themed bric-a-brac (think pictures of Sophia Loren and Frank Sinatra) on the red walls. The food, meanwhile, is served family-style -- large (and higher-priced) portions designed to be shared (small dishes are big enough for three, large for five). Owned by Planet Hollywood, it's a modest chain, with only three area locations and 83 nationwide, but based on a crowded recent visit (we waited 15 minutes for a table on a Sunday night, and were surrounded by a half-dozen large groups celebrating birthdays and graduations), it clearly strikes a chord.
The food: We started (yet again) with the stuffed mushrooms ($12.45), and this time they were flawless: large, firm caps stuffed with prosciutto and cheese, served in a basil cream sauce. The earthiness of the mushroom, the saltiness of the prosciutto and the creaminess of the cheese and sauce worked splendidly together. Chopped antipasto salad ($12.45, small) was another dish in which all the ingredients -- pepperoni, red onions, pepperoncini, cucumbers, provolone, feta and gorgonzola -- created an impressive diversity of flavor, salty, sweet and tangy. You don't always see chain restaurants attempting gnocchi -- tiny potato dumplings -- so we tried the gnocchi al telefono ($16.95, small); the dumplings were a little chewier than we would have liked, but the garlic marinara sauce flecked with chunks of fresh mozzarella was surprisingly subtle. Best of all: the chicken saltimbocca ($19.95, small), a wonderfully tender and flavorful variation on the classic dish featuring sautéed chicken breast, prosciutto, artichoke hearts and capers in a lemon sauce. Our only gripe was the homemade cheesecake topped with raspberry hazelnut sauce ($10.45), a generic end to an otherwise delightfully idiosyncratic meal.
The service: Polished, efficient and engaged -- better than you would ever expect in a chain.
The authenticity factor: The decor is more kitschy than authentic -- the only thing missing is the theme to the Godfather piping through the sound system -- but the food is so well-done that it's hard to sneer. Much like our own Italian household, there's also a charming eagerness to please: The servers make certain to ask if you're celebrating anything special, and if so, they're apt to sing you a song before the meal is out.
Cost: $98.40 for two (including tip), but we ended up with enough food to feed four
Rating: 9 meatballs
Carrabba's Italian Grill
1701 Crossroads Drive, Grapevine (additional locations through the Metroplex); 817-410-8461, www.carrabbas.com
The chain: Founded in Houston in the mid-1980s by relatives Johnny Carrabba and Damian Mandola -- "two big Sicilian boys from Texas who love to cook and eat" -- this chain now has more than 200 locations nationwide. The prices are a tad higher than at other Italian eateries, and the emphasis here is on grilled fishes and meats. (Just don't confuse it for Carino's.)
The food: Consistently good without ever rising to the level of great. We liked the freshness of the insalata fiorucci ($10.50), a salad of field greens, artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers and grilled eggplant, though the hazelnut crust on the accompanying goat cheese felt like overkill. Our other starter, the fried zucchini ($5.50 for a small order), cut like thin french fries, had a crunchy, not-too-greasy batter, and the garlic aioli dipping sauce complemented them neatly. The entrees were models of simple, rustic cooking: The pollo Rosa Maria ($14.50 for a small order) featured a tender chicken breast stuffed with gooey fontina cheese and prosciutto with a mushroom and lemon butter sauce. We might have wished for a tad more prosciutto, but that didn't stop us from devouring the entire dish. The spiedino di mare ($17.50) featured lightly breaded shrimp and sea scallops drizzled with lemon butter sauce. The biggest hits, though, came from the least expected corners of the menu: The lentil bean and sausage soup, which comes with an entree order, had a wonderfully spicy kick, and the "Chocolate Dream" dessert ($7) tasted like a heavenly cross between a brownie and a s'more.
The service: Polished and professional; if the grating, overly familiar style of most chain restaurant servers gets on your nerves, this is your place.
The authenticity factor: Carrabba's seems more concerned with turned-out, flavorful, not-entirely-unhealthy food, as opposed to some sort of Italian circus experience, and for this we were grateful.
Cost: $68 for two (including tip)
Rating: 7 meatballs