NEW YORK -- It's fair to say I judge Italian restaurants on how closely they resemble my grandmother's house on Christmas. As a child, I loved joining the extended Campagna clan around three big tables, winding through the first floor of Granny's home, so 35 of us could feast together. The dining room was noisy, the platters of shrimp scampi and spaghetti aglio olio were piping hot, the portions huge.
Turns out, Carmine's in New York City was just the right place for a group of 17 friends to eat together and enjoy each other's company. A family-style Italian restaurant with two locations (Upper West Side and Theater District), Carmine's has an atmosphere that is warm and celebratory, and the portions are enormous. Better yet, the Southern Italian cooking was really good. (Try the stuffed artichoke, seasoned with bread crumbs, olive oil, and herbs the way my Sicilian grandmother used to prepare it).
The night we visited, the restaurant was packed. The good news: Carmine's takes reservations for any size party starting at 9 a.m. each day and for parties of six or more after 7 p.m. Despite the crowded dining room, the food came out surprisingly fast, and hot. We shared antipasto platters brimming with baked mussels, clams, and stuffed mushrooms, as well as huge plates of chicken and veal marsala, shrimp scampi, and fried calamari, lightly dredged in flour and served with a spicy marinara sauce. (Average plate cost: $20). The large portions, meant to be shared by four or more, make it economical for groups. So, while at first glance, a Caesar salad for $16 seems steep, the value comes in how many it feeds.
Carmine's opened in 1990 in a former grand ballroom on the Upper West Side. Two years later, Carmine's II opened in Times Square. Designed by Boston restaurant designer Peter A. Niemitz, the interior takes elements and details from the 1920s through the 1940s: white tablecloths, black-and-white family photos, oak wainscotting and floors.
"The idea," said manager Gary Bologna, "is to make you feel like you are at your grandmother's."
In addition to a regular menu with 75 dishes, Carmine's offers nightly specials, including osso bucco (veal shanks cooked in white wine and veal stock and served with risotto Milanese) and double rack of lamb. The night we were there, the four pasta special were homemade gnocchi, penne with pesto, rigatoni in a bold meat sauce, and a creamy spaghetti carbonara.
The restaurant's signature desserts are bread pudding, which combines toasted Italian bread with white raisins and chocolate chips baked in a custard of cinnamon, eggs, vanilla, and heavy cream, and the Titanic, a banana split on top of a large slice of flourless chocolate torte.
"It's guaranteed to sink anyone's ship," Bologna said.
Service was attentive and not rushed. There's a relaxed feeling here, despite the fact that Manhattan bustles and bumps outside.
With 300 seats on the Upper West Side and 450 in Times Square, Carmine's is a favorite among tourists, city dwellers, and celebrities, including Jerry Seinfeld. Former president Bill Clinton ate here last fall, and Bologna said Clinton enjoyed himself so much that when he finished eating, he went into the kitchen to talk with executive chef Michael Ronis and his staff.
"Not bad when you consider he's not running for anything," said Bologna.
Carmine's, Upper West Side, 2450 Broadway, between 90th and 91st streets, 212-362-2200 and Carmine's Theater District, 200 West 44th St., between 7th and 8th avenues, 212-221-3800. Open for lunch and dinner.