Carmine's Italian Restaurant

by Michael Barbieri
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Fine dining in Las Vegas can be daunting!  Mega restaurants owned by mega celebrity chefs, and created by mega design firms are often overwhelming to Vegas visitors, and menus filled with unfamiliar ingredients can be intimidating; especially for families.

Carmine’s Italian Restaurant, in the Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace, is a great choice for anyone wanting good, old-school Italian comfort food in comfortable surroundings.  Wait!  Let me rephrase that: It’s a great choice for anyone wanting lots and lots of good, old-school Italian comfort food!  Go to Carmine’s with a group - with friends, family, or colleagues from work, because everything is served family style.  The food is terrific, the portions are huge, and everything's meant to be shared.  You’re bound to leave with leftovers! 

Carmine’s began in 1990 on New York’s Upper West Side.  The original space has a warm, old-fashioned vibe - cream-colored walls, dark wood paneling, antiqued brass chandeliers, and black and white photographs of Italian Americans from days gone by help to create its homey atmosphere.  Housed in a former grand ballroom, the concept was to make diners feel as though they were having a traditional family dinner prepared by someone’s Italian grandmother.  The flagship restaurant was soon joined by locations in Times Square, Atlantic City, Washington DC, and the Bahamas.

Their Las Vegas eatery reproduces that same look and feel - a cavernous space with similar framed photos on the walls, interspersed with old posters advertising Italian apéritifs, mismatched chandeliers, a huge bar, tables set with white linen tablecloths, and large booths with red banquettes.  

My friend Garrett joined me for lunch and we began with cocktails.  I chose the Breezy Italian - grapefruit vodka, fresh lemon, and Cynar, a slightly bitter herbal liqueur.  The fresh flavor reminded me of the taste of real grapefruit, which could make this one of those potentially dangerous drinks!  Garrett ordered the Cucumber Cooler - a smooth, refreshing, subtly flavored quaff, perfect for a summer day.

As there were only two of us, we didn’t order as many dishes as we might at a conventional restaurant; just a few select offerings.  What was served, however, was tasty and abundant.

To start, we ordered the Caesar Salad - crisp leaves of romaine lettuce coated in a creamy dressing made with olive oil, garlic, egg yolk, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, black pepper and in this case, anchovies, and Pecorino Romano cheese.  Piled high on a large serving platter, the deliciously garlicky salad came with huge croutons, which added crunch, and the saltiness of the anchovies and cheese helped cut through the richness of the emulsified oil and egg in the dressing.  We also tried the Baked Clams - a dozen Littleneck clams, topped with garlic, bread crumbs, oregano, Pecorino Romano cheese, then baked and sprinkled with fresh parsley.  While the clams were sweet and fresh, I’m used to baked clams swimming in a sauce of garlic, oil and spices.  Carmine’s clams were excellent, but to me, half the fun is sopping up that broth with bread once the clams are gone, so the presentation seemed a bit dry.  Our last appetizer was the Spiedini Alla Romana - slices of rustic Campobasso bread, rubbed with garlic - yes, MORE garlic - layered with fresh mozzarella cheese, stacked, toasted, and then covered with an unctuous sauce made with lemon butter, shallots, white wine, anchovies, and capers.  They finished off this sideways grilled cheese sandwich by impaling it with a steak knife.  Much as I enjoyed the other dishes we sampled at Carmine’s, this was sublime!  Hearty, filling and utterly addictive, this was a “Wow” moment! 

I was anxious to try one of Carmine’s seafood offerings, so we ordered the Shrimp Fra Diavolo - sweet, perfectly cooked shrimp, sautéed in a spicy marinara sauce made with onion, garlic, crushed red pepper, olive oil, white wine, and herbs.  The San Marzano tomatoes in the sauce were sweeter and less acidic than conventional Romas, and they balanced out the spicy elements, making sure the shrimp were still the stars of the dish.  Although the dish had nice heat, I would’ve liked it much spicier, but that’s not a negative - I just happen to like my spicy food very spicy!  And when dining at an Italian restaurant, you have to order pasta!  Right?  At Carmine’s, you can mix and match pastas and sauces, so we went with Spaghetti Bolognese - al dente spaghetti noodles, topped with a hearty tomato-based sauce made with a mirepoix of onion, celery, and carrot, to which was added plum tomatoes, herbs, a touch of garlic, ground beef, and sweet Italian fennel pork sausage.  The balance of sweet and savory was just right, with the fennel’s anise-like flavor coming through nicely, adding a sweet, earthy note, making this a comforting, satisfying dish.  And when you think of spaghetti, what else do you think of?  Meatballs!  At Carmine’s, they serve them over pasta and they even come as a side dish!  One order consists of 6 meatballs, but we knew that would be way too much, so our server arranged for us to sample just one.  Made from beef and veal, and smothered in their excellent marinara sauce, it had wonderful flavor, an enticing, beefy texture, and was roughly the size of a softball!  Though it was a bit salty for my palate, it was still very tasty...and very filling!

Although it had been an enormous lunch, we decided to try a couple of desserts.  We thought we’d be safe splitting an order of their Italian Cheesecake.  Made with ricotta cheese, it was deliciously creamy, but much more dense than New York style cheesecake.  I detected a subtle orange flavor from a touch of orange zest, and the chocolate crumb crust added a crunchy, buttery texture to finish it off.  We also ordered the Tiramisu - decadent layers of mascarpone, Marsala zabaglione, and espresso-soaked lady fingers, topped with cocoa powder and huge curls of shaved chocolate.  Both desserts were sinful, yet not overly sweet, and a perfect end to a good Italian meal.  We weren’t safe, however, as the cheesecake was enough for 4, and instead of individual servings of tiramisu, we got an entire pie; enough for 6 people!  We ended up with two shopping bags filled with to-go boxes!

If I have one negative criticism for Carmine’s, it would be the lack of actual menus at the tables.  The menu appears on large backlit panels located throughout the restaurant.  The idea was to keep the feel of the old menu-on-chalkboard feel of the original.  The downside to this was that many diners, myself included, had to get up from their tables, often more than once, to look at the menu and make selections.  It just seemed very inconvenient.

Regardless, we really enjoyed our enormous lunch at Carmine’s.  This wasn’t fancy-schmancy fine dining.  It was real people food, but elevated to Las Vegas excellence!  Come to Carmine’s, and bring your appetite!