Venue Review: Carini
Joe Finazzo came to the United States when he was 17 and immediately embarked on a career in the restaurant business - starting out, as so many others have, as a dishwasher. Four decades later, Finazzo has owned a number of successful pizzerias in Eastern North Carolina, including Sal's Pizza in RTP.
Carini, which Finazzo opened two years ago with his wife Cathy, is named for his childhood home, a village on the northern coast of Sicily. Cathy Finazzo, who was born in a nearby town in Sicily and, as she puts it, "married into the business," says that "carini" is also Italian for "nice" or "pretty." "Not beautiful," she takes pains to point out. "Pretty."
It's a fitting name for the restaurant. The location, in a relatively new strip mall in a part of west Cary that is rapidly being transformed from farmland to upscale subdivisions, is nice enough but hardly glamorous. And the simply furnished dining room - with its high-backed booths, walls painted in hues of sunny yellow and roof-tile red, and "Cucina" sign over the open kitchen - is sufficiently pretty for a casual date but not so beautiful that it feels too formal for families with small children.
Prices are family-friendly, too, and portions exceptionally generous for an offering that embraces pizzeria and ristorante fare with equal enthusiasm. Execution is generally solid, but in keeping with the casual setting, presentations are rustic. Whether you order meat lasagna or lobster ravioli in a brandy saffron cream sauce, your entree comes with an undistinguished mostly-iceberg lettuce salad with dressing in a plastic tub on the side. On the other hand, the complimentary warm garlic knots are a most welcome touch.
Even so, I'd suggest steeling yourself against the server's offer of more bread, and instead saving room for an antipasto course. Fritto misto, a medley of crisp, lightly breaded calamari, shrimp and scallops, is a winning option. Better still are the mussels fra diavolo, though you may find yourself asking for more garlic knots, after all, in order to sop up the addictive garlic- and basil-spangled spicy marinara sauce.
Ravioli fritti are a reasonably satisfying way to start the meal, too, and sure to be a hit with the kids. Just be sure to warn the little ones that the herbed ricotta filling inside those crispy pockets of fried pasta is lip-blisteringly hot.
The extensive entree offering covers all the usual bases, with a few surprises sprinkled among the traditional veal, chicken, seafood, pasta and baked dishes.
Cavatelli Carini pairs tender pasta with sautéed nuggets of chicken breast and spinach in a white wine sauce with a hint of gorgonzola cheese. At the opposite end of the flavor spectrum, but equally rewarding, is a rib-sticking twist on the parmigiana theme that serves up a mountain of Italian sausage, peppers and onions under a blanket of marinara and molten mozzarella. Even if you're famished, plan on taking home a doggie bag if you order this one.
Those seeking the comfort of the familiar will find it, judging by the faithfully rendered veal piccata I enjoyed recently. Seafood risotto is a keeper, too, with the caveat that there's precious little risotto (and it's soupy in a light tomato sauce, to boot). Granted, that may seem a quibble to some, given the abundance of jumbo shrimp, scallops, mussels, clams and calamari in the dish.
It should come as no surprise, in light of the owner's background, that pizzas are among the most popular options at Carini. The menu offers thick, square Sicilian style and thin, commendably crisp-crusted New York style pies, both available with a wide assortment of toppings. The margherita, which all too often falls far short of the purist's ideal, comes oh-so-close to the mark here. The thin layer of crushed tomato and spatters of fresh mozzarella are just right. But I doubt I'm the only person who would prefer that the basil be added after baking. The flavor is so much more vibrant, for one thing. And it looks, well, prettier.