You might say that Darius Robustelli has marinara sauce running through his veins. Robustelli grew up in Dutchess County, New York, where his father owned several Italian restaurants. The young Robustelli began cooking at age 7 and was running a restaurant kitchen at 19. In October, he teamed up with childhood friend John Runge, who had also moved to the Triangle, to open Carmine's. Robustelli does most of the cooking, while Runge runs the front of the house.
It's the first restaurant for both, but the partners' experience shows (Runge has also worked in the restaurant business) in a number of ways. The ambience, for one thing, is at once family-friendly and casually romantic in the way that Italian-American restaurants have mastered. Black-and-white-checked tablecloths, terra cotta walls and dark woodwork set a classic mood, with -- who else? -- Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin crooning in the background.
The food is steeped in Italian-American tradition, too. Many of the dishes are made from Robustelli family recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation. That includes the marinara, which is woven throughout the menu's offerings like the red thread in a richly colorful tapestry. Chunky with bits of tomato, neither too sweet nor too garlicky, warm marinara makes a fine dip for Carmine's tender fried calamari.
The sauce adds a bright note to veal parmigiana, too, and to eggplant and chicken variations on the theme. Jazzed up with capers, Kalamata olives and anchovy paste, the marinara is transformed into a pungent puttanesca, which Robustelli frequently tosses with mussels and serves over linguine as a nightly special.
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In its purest form, marinara is an amiable companion to spaghetti or your choice of several other pastas (including multigrain for the health-conscious).
The young chef credits his grandmother for the rustic meat sauce that is another winning pasta pairing. The sauce adds meaty substance to a generous slab of lasagna, too, though that dish could use a little more tomatoey vibrance for my taste.
At the other end of the spectrum is pasta Antonia, a medley of penne, sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms and spinach in a tomato cream sauce that would be at home on the bill of fare at an upscale ristorante. Named for Robustelli's grandmother, the dish offers savory evidence that the family matriarch's contributions aren't limited to standard Italian-American fare.
Given that a pizzeria was among the restaurants that Robustelli's father owned, it isn't surprising that Carmine's pizzas are a respectable rendition of the New York style. With a thin crust that's lightly crisp but still flexible, these are pies that you could easily imagine buying by the slice, then folding the slice and eating it while walking along a sidewalk in Brooklyn or Queens.
A key tenet of the Robustelli family's culinary heritage, as the young chef will proudly tell you, is the insistence on quality ingredients and scratch preparation. He'll tell you that he insists on San Marzano tomatoes for sauces, for instance, and Grande brand ricotta cheese for the house-made cannoli. He'll note that the chicken in the marsala is fresh, not frozen, and that veal is cut, pounded and breaded in house for the parmigiana.
The chef uses real pancetta, not the frequently substituted bacon, in his signature carbonara. The result is a flavor that comes tantalizingly close to the authentic dish, which is finished by tossing the pasta in a raw egg. When I asked why he resorted to the common cream sauce substitution, he said "because the Health Department would shut me down." Fair enough.
Carmine's weaknesses are portion size and service, both of which can be widely variable. Fried calamari lived up to its "generous portion" menu promise on one occasion but was skimpy on another. An appetizer order of clams in white wine and garlic produced only eight clams. Service can be feast or famine, too, depending on who is assigned to your table.
Conscious of the restaurant's culinary heritage and curious about its name, I asked Robustelli who Carmine's was named for. "Nobody," he said. "We just picked it because it's a nice Italian-sounding name." All I can say is, the name may be fictional, but the marinara is the real thing.