Thursday, April 24, 2003

Same old song

Posted on Thu, Apr 24, 2003 at 4:00 AM

Carrino's has a reputation as a go-to spot for Bay Hill -- and Windermere-based celebrities, sports figures and the odd boy band. (It's the answer to a trivia question on a Backstreet Boys fan site: "What is the name of the restaurant where the Boys had to sing for their dinner?") Hopefully the Boys didn't give over more than a note or two, because the food at Carrino's doesn't warrant much beyond a chorus.

There isn't any corollary between food and value here, and not much that stands out on the menu. A standard item such as chicken parmigiana ($14.95) is overbreaded, cooked to a soft, unexciting consistency and drowned in bland marinara. The eggplant rollatini, one of my favorites ($13.95), was even softer, the combination of ricotta and mozzarella cheeses overpowering what little flavor the eggplant once had. I tried the "irresistible" pasta trio of ziti and stuffed shells (another lesson in marinara swimming) and a bowl of fettuccini Alfredo without much taste ($13.95).

On a plus side, the grilled "Milano panini" sandwich ($6.95), of eggplant, spinach, mushrooms and provolone, had a pleasant combination of flavors and textures. And their pizza falls somewhere between superb and terrible; good crust, mediocre sauce. Meat sauce on the lasagna ($13.50) was richer tasting -- but 13 bucks for lasagna?

They could call this restaurant "Café Scusa," because apologies were flying the relatively quiet night we were there. A 15-minute wait at the table without server or menu was explained with, "Sorry, I wasn't told you were here." A delay with the wine was met by "Sorry, the bartender is backed up." (Insert your own joke here.)

Considering that restaurant staffs are practically falling over themselves to accommodate guests these days, I was surprised by the answer to my request to substitute gnocchi for ziti: "Sorry, they won't do it."

When the person who served my fettuccini accidentally poured a plateful of oil into it while clearing the table, we both stared at the ruined dish -- I guess he was hoping I hadn't noticed -- and then he took the plate away. "Sorry," came after.

It's a shame. Carrino's is pleasant inside, overlooking Little Sand Lake, and with owner Anthony Carrino's long family history in restaurants (Carrino's was at its former Bay Hill location for 16 years), the food and service should have been casually impeccable. Instead it was no better than what any neighborhood pizzeria could cobble together, and at a higher price.

If you're looking for great Italian food, I never wanna hear you say, "I want it that way."


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