DINING: Bargains at Carrabba’s wine dinners easily digested

Carrabba’s monthly wine dinners — four courses and wine with each course — for $40 per person are definitely among the best restaurant bargains in the Delaware Valley.
Carrabba’s monthly wine dinners — four courses and wine with each course — for $40 per person are definitely among the best restaurant bargains in the Delaware Valley. PHOTO COURTESY OF CARRABBA’S
There is a huge selection of pasta dishes, including original family recipes, and salads at Carrabba’s — large portions at modest prices.
There is a huge selection of pasta dishes, including original family recipes, and salads at Carrabba’s — large portions at modest prices. PHOTO COURTESY OF CARRABBA’S

Restaurant critics can be a pretty snobbish lot. Most usually have little or nothing to say that’s positive about downscale and midscale chains, for example, although those chains could obviously not exist if millions of consumers did not think they were providing good value for the money. I cannot remember the last time I saw a review of one of these restaurants in a local or national publication.

I will admit that for years my wife and I also shunned most chains. We have not been to any fast food restaurant except Subway in about 30 years. And up until the recession of 2008 we had never stepped foot in any midscale chain such as Red Lobster, Ruby Tuesday’s, TGI Friday’s, Outback, Olive Garden, Bonefish Grill, etc.

However, that economic recession changed many lifestyles, including ours, so we began sampling the fare at a few of these midscale chains, and lo and behold, we found that you really do get a bang for your buck. For example, we thoroughly enjoy the bourbon glazed salmon entrée at Ruby Tuesday for $16.95, which also includes the unlimited salad bar and another side dish. By contrast, for an anniversary treat, we went to Barclay Prime in Philly, where I spent $37 for a salmon entrée (no salad bar), which was not as tasty as the one at Ruby Tuesday for less than half the price.

Another case in point: the monthly wine dinners at Carrabba’s Italian Grill, 2575 Maryland Road in Willow Grove. (The chain was started by John Charles Carrabba and his uncle, Damian Mandola, in 1986 in Houston, Texas. There are now about 230 Carrabba’s locations nationwide. Others in the Delaware Valley are in Bensalem, Frazer, Springfield Mall and Chadds Ford.)

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On the third Tuesday of each month, every Carrabba’s restaurant has a four-course dinner with a different wine with each course — and refills for the wine — for $40 a person. There is no way we can eat all the food, so we have leftovers, usually enough for one more dinner. And quality-wise, there has not been a joker in the deck of the last six that we attended.

Here is a typical menu (from the July 18 wine dinner): An antipasto plate with prosciutto, burrata cheese, arugula salad and roasted grape tomatoes with Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc; linguine tossed in a lemon cream sauce with roasted grape tomatoes and asparagus, served on a bed of fresh spinach with Pieropan Soave, a white wine from the hills near Verona; Tuscan wood-grilled sirloin and grilled shrimp brushed with spicy Calabrian butter and grilled vegetables with Pian di Nova, a full-bodied red wine; and limoncello bread pudding with Riondo Prosecco, a bubbly, dry white wine. At $40, this has to be one of the best restaurant bargains anywhere. And the servers are all efficient and friendly.

Another plus at the Carrabba’s in Willow Grove is owner Steve Sclan, one of the most enthusiastic, animated restaurateurs I have ever seen. He usually comes up to every table with a big smile to ask how everyone is doing. Steve, 56, grew up in Warminster and graduated from Penn State with a degree in Hotel & Restaurant Management.

Steve started working in the restaurant business at age 16 and has never worked in any other field. He worked for two other chains, Ground Round and Applebee’s, and owned his own restaurant, Engine 46 Steakhouse, on Delaware Avenue in South Philly, which had formerly housed a fire station. Steve opened the restaurant in 1995 and closed it in 2006.

Steve said that his greatest accomplishment was “owning and running my own restaurant in the city,” but that the hardest thing he ever had to do was “closing my restaurant.”

At Carrabba’s Steve has 60 employees, some of them part-time, and can seat 270 people in the massive operation. In the last six months, he has averaged 55 customers for the wine dinners, although he has had as many as 70 at one time. “The entire company does them on the same Tuesday night across the country,” he said.

What have been Steve’s biggest challenges in the restaurant? “The biggest challenge in the restaurant business is working holidays and weekends. After 40 years in the business, though, you and your family adjust to it. We have our own family celebrations during the week.”

For more information, call 215-659-3950 or visit www.carrabbas.com.