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Working on the Chain Gang

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

I have seen the future of Carrabba's, and it worries me. Now that Johnny Carrabba and Damian Mandola have embarked on a joint venture with the expansionist Outback Steakhouse chain, branches of Houston's favorite trattoria are sprouting all over the Texas and Florida landscapes. Johnny and his uncle Damian, who sold his gold-mine Damian's restaurant as part of the deal, stoutly insist that throwing in their lot with aggressive mass feeders won't compromise quality. But recent visits to all four Houston locations -- including the two new deep-suburban Carrabba's on I-10 and FM 1960 -- make me wonder. I'm not the only one: Lots of Houstonians have the jitters about their favorite Italian guys' going national.

Already the menu in effect at all locations has a distressingly modular feel to it, with certain ingredients and sauces -- sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, basil butter, fontina -- appearing repeatedly in recombination. Optimists will call this document pared down; pessimists will call it dumbed down. It assumes, incorrectly, that fettuccine alfredo goes with almost everything, and it has sacrificed one of the best pasta dishes in town -- pappardelle campagnolo -- on the altar of mass appeal. Gone are the graceful flat ribbons of pasta that made this toss of peppers, sausage, goat cheese and tomato so winning; in their place are thick, stodgy tubes of rigatoni, a familiar and unthreatening noodle that gets more play on this menu than it deserves.

A couple of trends rate some hand-wringing. Carrabba's shows a growing penchant for ooey-gooeyness, a trait bound to endear the restaurant to Middle America. Mindless blobs of baked goat cheese have invaded the menu; even the once-pristine roasted red peppers now come swathed in an overwhelming ooze of melted fontina and olive-oily pesto. Oversalting, as American as apple pie, is rearing its head at more than one location. And the dessert tray, which once housed such gems as Marilyn Descours's bracing lemon tart, has devolved to a pedestrian, embalmed-looking array that would be right at home in a wax museum.

That's the bad news. Yet there still is good food to be had at Carrabba's; the people-watching remains choice at the original Kirby Drive and Woodway restaurants, and the moderate prices and festive, raucous atmosphere still suit, even in the slicked-up new locations. I give thanks that the house salads in their creamy Parmesan dressing are as simple and homey and delicious as ever. The rustic, fennel-spiked sausage made according to Johnny's grandfather's recipe has survived pretty much intact, and in conjunction with grilled peppers and onions it remains one of the city's better amenities. The terrific pizza foccaccia lives on -- a gutsy move, since its caramelized onions and rosemary will be a hard mass-market sell (presumably in recognition of this problem, the FM 1960 bar has been dispensing free samples of the stuff).

And I'm happy that getting a table at Kirby or Woodway has ceased to resemble a grueling Olympic event. Carrabba's fierce popularity, no-reservations policy and epic waits long ago made me forswear eating there except at three in the afternoon. But pent-up demand in suburbia (where 20- to 30-minute weeknight waits already are the rule at I-10, and FM 1960's first Saturday produced a two-hour back-up) seems to have reduced the pressure on the closer-in locations. Dinner is doable again.

Reliable it is not. Aside from a select few things I've always loved -- salads, sausages, thin-crusted pizzas -- the food has ricocheted wildly during the recent growth spurt. At the sainted Kirby Drive mother ship I had a shockingly bad meal: those utterly defeated roast peppers; a too-salty salmon special sided by gummy fettuccine alfredo ("Reminds me of grade school," groused the recipient); and ominously named chicken "Bryan Texas" that proved to be a frenetically overseasoned Aggie joke involving massive gobs of goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes strewn higgledy-piggledy, pools of herbed butter and -- goo piled upon goo! -- more sticky fettuccine.

On another day, with Councilman Ben Reyes holding court at one end of the room, state Senator Rodney Ellis at the other, and a shrieking tableful of capital-B Babes tossing gifts of lingerie back and forth, the kitchen had regained control. Rigatoni with eggplant and dry ricotta was stolid but decent. Eggplant Parmesan, its components of the differentiated rather than the welded-together kind, was its admirable, comforting self. A modest hazelnut-crusted disk of goat cheese made the lively Fiorucci salad of arugula and radicchio that much more entertaining.

For a moment, I could convince myself that we'd all live happily ever after, even with the Outback folks poised to pour ten million bucks into new Carrabba's sites: three new locations late last year, a half-dozen this year, 15 more in 1995, with an eventual target of 60 -- that's right, 60 -- a year.

For a glimpse of what that future looks like, witness the freestanding prototype restaurant at I-10 near Kirkwood, where the Cute Quotient and theme-y overtones may unsettle fans of Kirby Drive's converted-porno-shop scruffiness. The wooden schoolchairs and bare wood-rimmed tables are familiar. But the fake-chianti-bottle door handles, proliferating Italian-language graphics, and glittering open kitchen that's more stage set than work station (labeled "La Cucina," no less) hint at an alien life form just as surely as do those outsize serrated steak knives that have migrated from Outback's corporate cutlery drawer. The cute, thematic approach has worked big-time for Outback, whose 130-plus steakhouses (up from two in 1988) boast gruesomely matey menus and boomerang-heavy decor. Can Johnny and Damian hold the cute line? I don't take the I-10 restaurant's road sign pointing the way to various Italian cities as a good omen.

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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