Wookiee Hut Cuisine presents:
Carmine's

Times Square, NYC
212-221-3800

Review by SuSu, Ekwesh, Didi

I was looking forward to being at Carmine's, mostly because I was seeing friends I hadn't seen in quite a long time. I'd heard this place serves "family style Italian," meaning each plate will feed 4 to 8, and you pass the plate around. Sounds perfect for a small class reunion, don't you think?

It's a very packed place. It's in the Theatre District, by what one of us referred to as "Disney Square," a.k.a. Times Square. (As a sidenote, Times Square was once a hive of scum and villany, but it was cleaned up and now it's more like Las Vegas. Any sin or vice these days has to do with the Hershey store these days, I think.) Prior to 8pm, tourists are trying to get their dinner in them before the curtain opens for the Broadway shows packed into the area. After that, the place is absolutely crawling with financial and lawyer types: 20- and 30-something men in Brooks Brother's shirts, no jacket, tie, luggage cart (meaning they travel a lot of carry a big computer and files), and women trying to give one of them a night to produce a wedding ring -- you know, kind of like the cast of Friends without the attractiveness or wit. They won't seat you unless your whole party is present, so the bar is crowded with people waiting and people seeking their groups. A woman with a voice that carries over crowds would bellow your name to seat you once you let her know your group is all accounted for. Not personable at all.

The menu is up on the walls. It would help to check out the menu on the website before coming here, so you don't have to squint or holler out the offerings to one another. In the end, we gave up and appointed one member of the party to do all the ordering (if you are doing this, choose the pickiest person). Minor negotiations can be dealt with after the choices are made. The final selections: garlic bread, fried zucchini, fried squid with marinara sauce, rigatoni with Italian broccoli, shrimp capellini, chicken parmagiana. We went for mainstream stuff, since we were too busy catching up with one another.

The garlic bread was slathered with a mixture of chopped raw garlic, basil and parmesan cheese, and the slabs of bread were really too big and not so easy to chew. It was good but too strong, and I had that sour taste in my mouth that garlic imparts, but no one bothered me due to the intense odors emanating from my pores for days after. The bread was good, I think it would have been good with a chunky peasant-style soup. The zucchini was not what I expected, shredded, breaded and deep fried. The shreds were tiny, and they resembled very thin whitebait fish, only without the little black eyes or the flavor. It was okay for the first two minutes before the thin, thin shreds cooled and it just got greasy and slithery.

The rigatoni was good, the capellini watery, the chicken parmagiana so thin that all I tasted was breading, mozarella cheese and tomato sauce enveloped around something chewy and carboard-like. (I understand that the classic preparation may have tried to stretch a single chicken to feed half of Sicily, but hello, the war is over and rationing is no longer a reality!) The great dish of the evening was the fried calamari, a great mix of small, tender squid, tentacles and hood slices, which were not cut too thinly. The batter was really crunchy (not the breading stuff they seemed to use for everything else) and the marinara sauce was light and fresh tasting. Next time we have 10 people together, we should just order the calamari!

The servings were indeed enormous, and we didn't get anywhere near even half-finished. The leftovers were packed up for us and we pressed each other to take it home ... finally the one who was best with leftovers had to take it. They were made into omelets, soups, sandwiches, and were not bad, as the originals were not bad. There was so much food that we ended up with two more meals (for all of us) with the leftovers!

Flavor of the meals basically reflects the "Emeril Lagasse showtime personae" style of cooking: dumping way too much salt and garlic on stuff, just for the sake of yelling "bam!" at everything. Using these as "ingredients" for other meals meant we got to dilute the effect of too much cooking-as-sport jocky efforts.

The service stinks. We had to wait quite a while for drink orders, the busboy dumped water on the guy at the head of the table and didn't even say "sorry" -- he just kept putting food on the table, then wandered off to get a napkin to blot up the water! We were all upset by this and complained to the waitress, who was concerned but didn't seem to be overly concerned. Maybe this is normal service standard.

The prices were not bad. The $21 cost for a platter of parmagiana did feed 10 of us, after all. With drinks, leftovers, tip (or not, since the service is awful -- can't emphasize that enough), it came to $30 per person, which is good for "everything." The space is large and nicely laid out, and the bathrooms very clean and well-appointed. They even have disposable paper mouthwash cups and a pump dispenser of the oral hygiene liquid. You understand why this is necessary after you order the garlic bread ... The service was bad, the food was better than mediocre, but no big deal in a town with way too many Italian restaurants. I can't imagine theatre-goers getting their meals in time but perhaps they treat the later customers more laconically.

Carmine's seems to take the myth of tourist traps too seriously. In short, if it wasn't to see friends, we'd avoid this particular tourist trap. Go somewhere nicer with better food; it's not like there aren't enough of those places in this big city, even near Disney Square! And you'll likely end the night without liquid dumped on you, too.


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