Carrabba's Italian Grill

After a visit to Carrabba's Italian Grill, you'll know the meaning of il benvenuto alla nostra cucina, even if Italian isn't your language. The welcoming atmosphere of an Italian family kitchen permeates Austin's two locations, true to the spirit of the family that inspired the original.

While each of the Austin restaurants has a unique personality driven by its managing partner -- Jim Smith's restaurant tends to draw families from the northwest suburbs, while mostly university and businesspeople frequent Alfredo Porto's location closer to Central Austin -- both offer the handmade-to-order dishes and friendly, professional service established by founders Johnny Carrabba and his uncle Damian Mandola.

Guests are greeted with a warm welcome and the sight of one of Carrabba's signature features, a wood-burning pizza oven that's kept stoked and ready for baking. Family pictures, both of the Carrabba family and of the community families each restaurant has acquired, line the entrance walls. Seductive aromas from the ovens and wood-burning grill waft in from the dining area.

An open kitchen gives guests a view of the chefs at work preparing each dinner with quality fresh ingredients. "Fresh" is a very important word at Carrabba's: fish for the daily seafood special is delivered fresh, not frozen, and according to some of the many food facts noted on the website's online menu, the company goes through more than 50,000 pounds of fresh Romano cheese each month and it's the largest restaurant purchaser of squid in the United States. Yes, squid: Calamari is one of the best-selling appetizers, and the restaurants use only fresh squid in their recipes. When a biology class from a nearby school was studying squid anatomy, Jim sent over fried calamari to enhance the lesson.

At the table, servers give first-time guests a thorough tour of the menu and specials, and consult the Name Book for special requests and dining preferences of returning guests. Alfredo and Jim make a point of hiring servers who love to take care of customers and will treat them as guests in the home of good friends.

And of course, there's the food. Most of Carrabba's menu items either derive from family recipes (many from Damian's mother Grace and sister Rose) or are inspired by regional cuisines Damian has enjoyed during his extensive travels. Best-sellers include an 18-hour-marinated Veal Marsala, fontina-and-prosciutto-stuffed Pollo Rosa Maria and Pasta Weesie with shrimp sautéed in white wine, garlic and lemon butter. Italian wines, beer and coffee drinks also help bring Italy to Austin.

Maybe the best seat in the house -- because it's just like pulling up a chair to the kitchen counter -- is the Pasta Bar in front of the open kitchen. This is the place to be to talk with the chefs and maybe even taste a sample or two.

Other signature Carrabba's touches: pizza dough for children to play with and occupy their attention (it works for adults, too), and Carside Carry-Out, which enables customers to pick up their phoned-in orders without leaving the car. (Rumor has it some exceptionally casual customers have driven up in pajamas.)

Both Austin restaurants actively support their communities with donations of food and service. Fundraisers for local schools and non-profit hospitals, as well as events for national organizations such as the American Red Cross and the American Cancer Society, have benefited from events catered by Smith's and Porto's restaurants. It's all a part of the Carrabba's family experience.

It officially began when Johnny Carrabba and Damian Mandola opened their first Carrabba's restaurant in 1986. They set out to share the family recipes and atmosphere they cherished growing up and, as veteran restaurateurs, knew their formula had to include a friendly staff embodying the right balance of menu savvy and customer care.

It was a successful recipe: The first Carrabba's thrived, and a second Houston location opened in 1988. The charm and success of the Italian-kitchen atmosphere attracted the attention of Outback Steakhouse, Inc. in 1993, and a joint-venture partnership was formed. Outback acquired the rights to develop Carrabba's nationwide two years later. Austin gained its restaurants in the mid-1990s.

In the years since, Carrabba's Italian Grill has found homes around the United States from Las Vegas to Boston, and they're still growing. Damian and Johnny maintain the family spirit by attending the opening of each new location, visiting the established restaurants, and speaking at the restaurant managers' seminars -- and in between, they still find time for their Houston restaurants and hosting the PBS cooking series "Cucina Amore."

Watching Damian expertly yet casually toss together a sumptuous Italian feast on "Cucina Amore" while bantering with Johnny and studio guests is testament to the whole story of Carrabba's and its founders' philosophy. As it says on every menu: Non ci è amore più sincero di quello del cibo ... there is no love more sincere than the love of food.

Knowing that, there's only one thing left to say regarding Carrabba's Italian Grills: Mangia!

- Betsy Thaggard

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