Grub trees

Carrabba's menu standards are better than typical chain food.
Stephen P. Karlisch

It's hard to gauge what kind of a mind would turn a restaurant rooftop into a forest. But Carrabba's Italian Grill has done it, transforming the roofs on 16 of its restaurants into sloped gardens. Engineers brace the roof with steel beams and concrete slabs, dump roughly 90 tons of dirt laced with peat, vermiculite, and Styrofoam peanuts for lightness, and then plug various trees, shrubs, and azaleas into it.

Company executives at the 74-unit quasi-upscale casual Italian restaurant say this rooftop cultivation is a successful alternative to spending for advertising. "As broadcast media become more and more costly and it becomes more costly to promote yourself, we made the decision to create more curb appeal with the exterior of the building," Carrabba's Italian Grill spokeswoman Andi Jacobs says.

Or dumb-fool driver appeal maybe. When one of the chain's restaurants in St. Petersburg, Florida, was having its rooftop forested, trees dangling from the end of a crane incited a rubbernecker car wreck on a nearby freeway. It's scenes like this that make a great sport out of ridiculing restaurant chains whose kitschy little antics dangerously intrude on the thematic eatertainment realm. Miraculously though, Carrabba's Italian Grill skirts the lethal hazard plaguing many gimmick-laden chains: inedible food.

Which is a good thing, because the Dallas version of this Italian chain spawned in Houston doesn't have a conspicuous green air castle, which may prevent distracted motorists from driving off the Tollway and dinging the nearby gold-leaf dome that gives III Forks its curb appeal. Yet while Carrabba's roofs generally are ripe with adventurousness, the menu mostly isn't.

Still, what Carrabba's does, it does well. Sticking to mostly conventional chain-Ital chow, Carrabba's Italian Grill has a menu heaped with standard wood-fired pizzas, pasta, and grilled meats. Yet somehow the menu is sparked with imaginative flair injected with a bit of culinary complexity.

For instance, the basket of sourdough bread plunked on the table contains a crusted, sliced loaf that's hot and moist and tastes far better than the nuked hell-in-a-handbasket fiberboard puffs pawned off in most chains. Olive oil is dribbled on a plate dusted with a pinch of dried herbs, eliminating the need to peel foils from butter pads.

This same deftness elevates the basic salads Carrabba's serves with its entrées. The house Caesar was among the very best utilitarian versions of this salad with crisp, freshly assembled romaine leaves; airy, crisp croutons; and a lush dressing with pronounced lemon and anchovy and generously impregnated with Parmesan shavings. Italian salad, a compilation of carrot, tomato, kalamata olives, croutons, red onion, and pepperoncini, was nearly as good, except that some of the lettuce ribs and leaf edges were pitted and browning.

Soups hit highs too. The lentil soup ($2.69 cup, $3.99 bowl) with large chunks of chewy sausage was smooth and hearty with firm, tender lentils and a gentle gust of fennel that opened into a firm prick of pepper on the palate.

But Carrabba's stumbled a little on the Italian grill-house standards. Antipasti platter ($8.49), a standard appetizer with calamari, bruchette, and fried cheese tethered to a dish of marinara, was a little limp and soggy. Fragments of fried squid, encrusted in a sheath of well-seasoned blond batter, varied from crisp little knots of tentacles to tender rings that were mushy or greasy. Bruchette Carrabba was a pair of toasted pieces of garlic bread--one mounted with fontina cheese and sautéed mushrooms, the other with mozzarella, tomato, pesto, and basil shreds--that festered with grease. Flat, wide rectangular planks of breaded mozzarella, fried to a corroded iron hue, were the best of the platter: crisp, chewy, gooey, and mated to a smooth marinara that wasn't overly sweet.

Restaurateurs Johnny Carrabba and Damian Mandola founded this Italian grill in Houston in 1986. Their ambitions (and no doubt their billfolds) grew in 1993 when, with two units under their belts, they partnered with Tampa-based Outback Steakhouse Inc. Together they spawned 10 more units in Houston and Florida before the initial feeler evolved into a full-fledged acquisition in 1995 whereby Outback acquired the rights to develop the concept outside Texas. Current plans call for 10 or so more units over the course of 2000, all of which will have rooftop forests, including the one set to open in Grapevine at the end of this month.

The Dallas incarnation is clean and loud with small decor focal points such as brick walls, wood furniture, pergolas sown with fake grapevines, and booths with wood-slatted backs. The tables are embedded with mosaic-like patterns, a kind of table-wide permanent place mat. Potted plants are positioned on booths' ledges. And just like every other Italian grill house and pasta parlor, black-and-white family photos, allegedly Carrabba's family snaps, fill the walls like extras in a campaign commercial trumpeting the plights of working families.

Carrabba's also features a counter surrounding an exhibition kitchen, where you can watch men in latex gloves fling food, spoon sauces, swirl pans, billow flames, and toss logs into the wood-fired pizza kiln.

We didn't try any of Carrabba's wood-fired handmade pizzas, but we did have a fling with a ball of Carrabba's pizza dough. In addition to crayons and scribbling surfaces, kids are offered balls of this stuff "for their entertainment." And it seems to work. The tykes squeeze it, toss it, and press it into various Carrabba's surfaces like the Silly Putty facsimile that it is. Then they ask whether they can eat it, which the Carrabba's press kit says is permissible.

But this is basically the most unpleasant thing there is to chew here. Most of the entrées are tasty. Sirloin Marsala ($14.99), a center cut topped with mushrooms, prosciutto, and Marsala wine sauce, was a thick medallion of plush red flesh. The savory sauce was broad, deft, and balanced with a slight tangy spark and a smoky undercurrent from the grill. A side tangle of angel-hair pasta with a tomato-meat sauce was perfectly cooked, though the sauce was a bit timid.

Some dishes can get redundant. Mixed chicken grill ($17.99) had three different breast versions--chicken Marsala, chicken Bryan, pollo Rosa Maria--that varied in the way that breasts do when they're on dancers in men's clubs instead of on chickens. That is, the distinction was all in the dressing, and even then it wasn't much. All of the plump, tender chicken breasts were fire-roasted, slathered in a sauce, and topped with clutter. Chicken Marsala, covered with mushrooms, prosciutto, and Marsala sauce, had the same breadth as the sauce on the steak, but wasn't much different from the chicken Bryan, with caprino cheese and sun-dried tomatoes in a basil-butter sauce, which was a barely perceptible departure from pollo Rosa Maria, a breast washed in a smooth mushroom-basil-butter sauce carpeted with prosciutto and melted fontina cheese.

Carrabba's offers a grilled fresh fish of the day, which is finished with the sauce of the day. Halibut ($15.49) a thick hunk of flesh covered in a smooth, tangy white-wine lemon-butter sauce flecked with mint, basil, and diced Roma tomato, was fine. The fish was moist, but it was also spongy, with a tired flavor that lacked briny tones or subtle sweet undercurrents. A crowd of steamed broccoli florets was tender, though a little soggy.

Side pastas seemed to work better than the pasta entrées. The fettuccini Alfredo ordered with the chicken Parmesan held perfectly cooked pasta ribbons in a smooth, creamy, and full-flavored sauce. But the chicken Parmesan ($13.49) itself was overly salted and a little parched. Still, excepting these imbalances, the basic flavors held together.

Mezzaluna ($9.99) was a simple collection of half-moon ravioli in a muted tomato cream sauce. Stuffed with chicken, ricotta cheese, and spinach, the lunar slivers were gummy and pasty, a texture that unraveled the well-balanced and flavorful innards.

Dessert was a little tired. Far from airy and delicate, the tiramisu ($4.49) was clumsy, heavy, and lumbering, topped with a dense layer of mascarpone that overwhelmed the thin sponge cake beneath it. The layers didn't intermingle, making the whole composition overbearing and hard to eat.

Carrabba's Italian Grill servers are attentive and gracious, to the extent that on our first visit, the server guaranteed we'd love everything he delivered or he'd deduct it from our check--a move that invites a coupon-clipping brand of hyper-criticism. As a basic restaurant, Carrabba's Italian Grill is good. As a chain restaurant, it far surpasses expectations. Most corporate-driven feeding fiefdoms blather on about freshness and quality and service, tossing them around like so many annoying buzzwords. Carrabba's Italian Grill mostly delivers. Carrabba's seems to have an innate sense that these kinds of things don't grow on trees. So it has turned this cliché on its head, choosing to have trees grow on them.

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