Young and Hungry

The Family Guise: Two New Italian Eateries Take Radically Different Approaches

Chef Amy Brandwein of Casa Nonna

Chef Amy Brandwein of Casa Nonna (Photo by Darrow Montgomery)

The four of us have settled into our expansive four-top at Carmine’s when a food runner hustles by with what looks, from a distance, like a car battery on a tray. On closer inspection, it’s a squat tower of lasagna, a mammoth slab scaled to the oversized dimensions of the 20,000-square-foot family-style restaurant in Penn Quarter. “That’s the size of my chest!” exclaims my friend, Jim, whose own dimensions could be described as family-sized.

Carmine’s portions present a problem for eaters like Jim and the rest of us red-sauce connoisseurs. Sure, we place a premium on value, just like everybody else who has watched his disposable income shrink faster than the Democrats’ popularity. But we also value variety; we prefer a spread of meatballs slathered in red sauce, spiedini alla Romana pungent with anchovies, hot Italian sausages paired with peppers and onions, bitter escarole spiked with garlic and lemon, chicken parm hot and gooey with cheese and sauce. We want a taste of it all at our table.

At Carmine’s, you have to be more selective when ordering from the menus affixed to the wall—or be prepared to walk out of the place with enough leftovers to start a food bank. I’ve seen people leave with aluminum containers that look as if someone in the kitchen just put foil over a steam-table tray and handed it to a customer. These aren’t leftovers as much as full entrees left untouched. When a friend and I ordered the chicken scaloppini on an earlier visit, we counted four whole pounded chicken breasts, more than half of which I took home to harden in the fridge.

On this latest visit, we knew we had over-ordered as soon as our “appetizer” of Carmine’s salad reached the table. It was the Staten Island ferry of apps, a lumbering plate heaped with greens, cubed salami, provolone, pitted olives, celery, pepperoncini and God knows what else, drizzled with a sort of creamy red-wine vinegar dressing. It was a like having your salad and antipasti all at once, and I wolfed down my portion as if I wouldn’t eat again for a week. I tried to remember we still had two entrees coming, including that torso-sized lasagna.

A few days earlier, I ordered the lasagna at Casa Nonna, another family-style joint that recently opened in the District. Served in an ivory colored gratin dish, the entrée is downright modest in proportion compared to its counterpart at Carmine’s. It’s also more refined. Chef Amy Brandwein makes her pasta in-house, which she layers with mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses, béchamel, and a ragu studded with diced carrots, which help provide this exquisite sweetness to the savory sauce. It’s lasagna designed to impress with its chef-driven sophistication, not its sheer volume.

I could say the same thing for Casa Nonna in general. The operation, housed in the former California Pizza Kitchen space at Connecticut Avenue and N Street NW, is a family-style restaurant that should have a sign outside that says: “Drop the Kids at McDonald’s Before Entering.”

Unlike many other representatives of the volume-focused dining category, the place is sleek and sensual, with lots of dark wood accented with copper veneers, a terra cotta floor, a marble pizza bar, and shelf after shelf stacked with Italian products and jarred pastas, all of which are underlit to inject an air of status to these quotidian ingredients. I’ve seen cocktail lounges that weren’t this moody.

It’s a lot easier for a single person to eat at Casa Nonna than at Carmine’s. The appetizers can be consumed solo without fear of a hospital visit and a stomach pump. The pizzas, each produced in a wood-burning oven, are perfect for lone diners. Even the entrees, intended to serve up to three, wouldn’t require previous experience on the competitive eating circuit to wolf down their contents alone (though you’d have to be really, really hungry). This strikes me as “family-style” by way of L.A., not Jersey.

The pizzas are worth a spin, whether you decide to split them or not. Described as Neapolitan-style on the menu, my Margherita looked more like the product of New York; its crust was flat as far as the eye could see, and almost gravity-defying, like a sturdy, coal-fired New Haven pie. Despite its crispiness, the slice was salty and satisfyingly chewy. I was impressed —impressed enough, in fact, that I was taken aback when I noticed the puffy cornicione on a second visit, as if the kitchen had suddenly discovered the benefits of extended dough fermentation. Whatever my Nonna pie (stuffed zucchini flowers, fried egg, mozz) gained in soft pliability, it lost virtually nothing in chewiness or flavor.

Brandwein worked with Roberto Donna for years, both at Galileo downtown and at Bebo Trattoria in Crystal City, and while her kitchen at Nonna focuses more on the humble charms of Southern Italian cooking, the chef cooks as if she were still in Donna’s higher-end establishments. Her attention to detail with red sauces is nearly obsessive, not only in her ability to neutralize the acidity of the tomatoes but also in her determination to find the right pasta for each sauce. Her fried calamari is fork-tender; her pasta well-salted and cooked al dente; even her broccoli rabe makes me pay attention, its bitterness stripped away to reveal a deep, peppery flavor. The only mistake I tasted was the dry, overcooked chicken in the piccata.

Carmine’s track record wasn’t as spotless. That big n’ tall lasagna proved rather tasty, its flavors pumped up by the tartness of the twin sauces (both fresh marinara and meaty red) and the decided tang of the ricotta. Tomato tartness, in fact, was a defining characteristic of the red sauces at Carmine’s, probably because the same sauces can be served over any number of pastas. I’d avoid the stuffed artichoke, a gloppy and gritty affair, as well as that trough of chicken scaloppini, which tastes more like chicken and dumplings, even with the lemon-butter sauce. Just go straight to the snowball-sized meatballs, rounds of moist beef and veal that pair perfectly with the tart sauce.

What fascinates me about Carmine’s and Casa Nonna are the paths that each traveled to reach D.C. The New York-based Alicart Restaurant Group, which own Carmine’s, has been set on world domination for a few years now, to judge by the introduction to its Carmine’s Family-Style Cookbook from 2008: “Jeffrey [Bank, the CEO] currently has expansion plans on the drawing boards for restaurants in Garden City, Long Island, New York; Las Vegas, Nevada; Washington, D.C.; and Orlando, Florida. In reality, Carmine’s could go anywhere.”

Though Casa Nonna’s BLT Restaurants group is also New York-based, there was no similar consensus about growing its footprint. The firm apparently had to go through a divorce before it could launch in D.C. Co-founder Jimmy Haber told Crain’s New York Business that he wanted to expand the company to include more recession-friendly restaurants, like Casa Nonna, but that partner/chef Laurent Tourondel resisted bringing in other high-profile toques to lead the Italian kitchens. The partners separated, dividing the empire between them.

What on earth could be so special about family-style restaurants that one group would want to seed them around the country, while another would be willing to break up a hugely successful company just to open one in the District? Part of the answer to that question lies in the history of family-style restaurants. They have their roots in the Southern Italian families who, in the late 19th century, started immigrating to the Bronx, to Brooklyn, to New Jersey, to South Philly, any place where large clans could gather around the table on Sunday afternoon after church and dig into homemade platters of pasta and meat sauce.

Dirt poor back in the mother country, these immigrants discovered that the pantry in America wasn’t as bare. Long before McDonald’s came along, the eateries opened by these transplants were the original proponents of super-sizing. “Everything came in portions that would have fed a family for a week back in Salerno,” writes John and Galina Mariani in The Italian-American Cookbook. “Meatballs grew to the size of tennis balls. Six-inch pizzas grew to twelve inches, inundated with ingredients Italian pizza-makers would never dream of putting on their pies.”

Contemporary Americans certainly aren’t as poor as the Italian immigrants back in the 19th century, but we seem to feel like it in this stalled economy. This likely explains the hospitality industry’s current fascination with family-style restaurants: They know we’re looking not only for value but also for a chance to sit around a large table with friends and family, remembering that the important things in life can’t be purchased from a menu.

Carmine’s, 425 7th St. NW, (202) 737-7770

Casa Nonna, 1250 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 629-2505

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to Or call (202) 650-6925.

  • Vito Rago

    For more Italian recipes prepared by Italian Nonne visit Cooking show hosted by Rossella Rago. On each show Rossella invites an Italian Nonna from a different region of Italy to prepare the traditional recipes from the region that the Nonna is from.


    I love Italian food!!

  • Glass Whiteboard

    This just made me so hungry for Italian food, you have NO idea! :)

  • NiggaPlz

    What I realized the morning after eating at Carmine's was that I not only had awful food, but large portions of awful food. The good is heavy and salty, not the way red sauce Italian is meant to be. Try Olazzo in Bethesda if you want the real deal...

  • Maggie [The Freckled Citizen]

    THIS is how you write a compelling restaurant review. Really nicely done. (And shocker... someone's now in the mood for Italian food.)

  • NovaNicole

    Is Carmine's trying to outdo Buca di Beppo?

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  • Markus

    My wife and I joined a friend to celebrate his birthday at the new Carmine's in Penn Quarter. What a mistake. The only way I can describe this place is with the phrase "consistently awful."

    Service: Despite reservations, we waited for over an hour past our scheduled time for the table to be prepared. Our waiter outdid himself in insisting every dish was more delicious than the last--which in the best case was a blatant prevarication.

    Food Quality: Three days on, my (half-Italian) wife is still complaining about our meal at Carmine's. "Traumatised" is the best way to describe it. Although she admittedly has high standards, the food was worse than bad. The only ingredient of the mixed green salad that had more taste than the iceberg lettuce was the pepperoncino. The pasta noodles were most assuredly overcooked, even by American standards. The meatballs, although comically large, were tasteless and mushy. Compounding the problems, no dish was served at a temperature any higher than lukewarm. Their signature dessert, the "Titanic" even managed to have very little taste, which is is quite the feat given the number of calories it must have contained. The house wine, served in a gigantic bottle with a custom Carmine's label, was appropriately undrinkable. The best food during the entire meal was the bread basket, in which there was precious little of it. The food is more or less on par with that of the Olive Garden--if you go for that sort of thing, knock yourself out.

    Atmosphere: The tacky, artificially "authentic" interior seemed to be trying its hardest to give Applebee's a run for its money in terms of irony. Despite the restaurant's cavernous square footage, customers were packed in on top of one another while they wolfed down their food.

    Do yourself a favour if you want authentic Italian food with large portions (at a fantastic value) and head to Pasta Mia in Adams Morgan. Carmine's is probably adequate for families of Midwestern tourists looking for a big-city experience and to eat their fill after a day at the Spy Museum and the Crime Museum.

  • Adam

    Just wanted to let all my other italian food lovers know about the great deal they have at Half off at Floriana in Dupont. This is one of my all time favorites in the D.C area.

  • Donna Mc.

    A friend wanted to take me out to a nice lunch, so she took me to this place on 11/09/11. To start off with, the menu was very confusing and it was hard to tell exactly what was in each dish or how it was made. Since EVERYTHING was so freaking expensive, I decided to get the CAVATELLI AL RAGU DI MAIALE, which was described as "Ricotta Dumplings, Pork Ragu, Ricotta Salata". It was $18 ... one of the cheaper entree items (And that was a lunch price. I can't even imagine paying higher dinner prices!). My friend got the same thing. Neither of us were impressed with this dish at all.

    I was thinking this dish would be a saucy ragu over pasta with some ricotta in it, but it was far from that. The Ricotta dumpling was the actual pasta and it did not taste anything like ricotta at all. In fact it was very, very bland. The pork "ragu" was simply some pieces of very plain pulled pork tossed in, with no sauce at all. I also got a huge piece of pork fat as well, and did not realize it until it was in my mouth, and it was gross beyond belief. There was no sauce at all on the dish that I tasted, except maybe some pork fat. I have no idea what "Ricotta Salata" means, but there was no taste of ricotta at all in the dish. You would think that in mentioning Ricotta twice... it would have some of that taste in the dish. Complete FAIL.

    On top of this all, the portion was very, very small, and there was nothing that came with the entree either, like a small side salad. I don't mind small portions if the food is outstanding, but it just wasn't. It was not even very good. It was just very so-so. Even Macaroni Grill has better pasta dishes than this!

    They served some flat/cracker like bread, but it was heavily covered in red pepper. There was loose whole rosemary leaves on top too, but you couldn't taste it as it would just fall off when you picked up a slice, so it was likely just for decoration. The bread did not taste very good at all either, and there was seriously far too much red pepper on it to taste anything but the pepper. Another FAIL.

    After tax and tip, my friend ended up paying about $50 for a small lunch of basically too very small bowls of very bland pasta and one soda. She expressed how upset she was over the whole thing a day later, and that is why I am here posting this, because nobody should be made to feel this way when they go out to a restaurant. The fact that this place had such crappy food and raped my friends pocket and upset her so much, upsets me! I will never recommend this place to anyone. However, if you are a masochist and like feeling taken advantage of... go for it.

    Another day has passed and my friend is still upset by our negative experience with this restaurant, because she feels so cheated / scammed. I can't say I blame her either, and it makes me angry at this place for robbing people and treating them this way.