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Working on the Chain Gang

Carrabba's is cloning itself for national consumption. Has it kept its original flavor?

Nor do I take the ooey-gooey bruschette "Scotty Thompson" I encountered there as a good sign. Named for a Kirby Drive regular who dreamed it up, this do-it-yourself version of embellished toast is a notably bad idea: blobs of baked goat cheese marooned on a sea of strangely tinny tomato, each element fighting the other. Respectable garlic toast couldn't save it. Fortunately the pizza and sausages were in fine form, although shrimp Damian in a vibrant, deliriously garlicky lemon-butter sauce suffered from a couple of iodiney specimens (a shortcoming echoed by Outback's grilled shrimp), and from fettuccine alfredo that seemed excessive in this context. I felt like the young woman who had crossed my path at the door, staggering slightly on her way out and moaning "Riiiiiiich."

At the even-newer FM 1960 location, in an erstwhile Oshman's near Champion's Forest, the first week of operations showed a surprisingly even keel. So what if the fried calamari had the tensile strength of rubber bands? Chicken-and-ricotta-stuffed cappelletti in tomato cream still possessed the sturdy homemade texture that makes it Carrabba's best pasta. Linguini pescatore bristling with plump mussels and silky scallops had a brave red-pepper level that compensated for its one-dimensional tomato sauce. Chaste, nicely grilled chicken benefited from a hit of greenish, herbal ammoghiu sauce -- an insider's off-the-menu potion that had made the trip north, albeit in less garlicky form, to the pleased astonishment of one cynical Carrabba's regular. "This is not the same damn bread," he carped, but fettuccine alfredo that outshone the other branches' versions cheered him up. We contemplated the increasingly multicultural look of the staff, with its Indian and African-American waiters, and speculated that Carrabba's snappy, overfamiliar service style will be a mass-market hit.

Meanwhile, over at Woodway, Carl Lewis strutted in a flamboyant track suit, and salt mania prevailed. Lentil and sausage soup was sabotaged by its salt content: The alluringly roasted potatoes that come with grilled items were radically salty; even the good old Carrabba sausage seemed much saltier than usual. I was reminded uncomfortably of the Outback Steakhouse's seasoned fries, potatoes so salt-laden that "overseasoned fries" would be closer to the truth. Salt sells in America, but we have come to expect better of Messrs. Carrabba and Mandola.

All was not lost, thanks to pizza foccaccia of great character, a sumptuous and perfectly grilled veal chop, and juicy pancetta-wrapped quail on grilled polenta squares. Lamb chops over-grilled by a few notches had been blessed with an interestingly tart marinade. The corps of white-shirted, necktied, khaki-clad waiters in their long white aprons -- always an integral part of the Carrabba's look -- swooped and darted, clustering occasionally to bellow the Italian birthday serenade that America is sure to love.

So what does it all mean? Carrabba's Houston faithful had better steel themselves for a more standardized menu and some rocky culinary spots, regardless of the founders' best intentions. Clearly companies don't double and triple overnight without strain. Visitors to the new Houston locations can expect uneven fare that, at its best, lives up to Carrabba's reputation.

The Inner Loop jingoists and posh suburbanites who frequent the original restaurants may find Carrabba's broad new audience a shock. The new places are thronged with sports-togged families, dating teens, and folks who appear to have more than a passing familiarity with the Home Shopping Network. Better not show up expecting lunch, either, as a friend of mine did at the I-10 spot. The new Carrabba's, like the Outback Steakhouses, don't bother with it.

In the end, skeptical of chaindom as I am, I admire Johnny and Damian and hope their big adventure pans out. In an age infested by Olive Gardens, America can use an army of Carrabba's -- warts and all. Here at home, we can only pray that a cloned Carrabba's won't end up like Ninfa's did, bereft of the very magic that ripened it for expansion.

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