Friday, February 5, 2010

On The Fence At Carlo's Trattoria

Clearly I underestimated the situation when I decided to take the advice of an old college fraternity brother and check out the restaurant at Hartville Kitchens. He had made the recommendation to try out the restaurant and stated how popular it was. However, I had made the silly decision to show up at 6 PM on a Friday night. Seriously bad move. The parking lot didn't look all that full, but as I approached the front of the building, I saw the one thing that I dread the most when going out to eat: A long line. Now, I don't have a problem with waiting fifteen or twenty minutes to get seated at a table in a restaurant at which I particularly want to dine. However, there appeared to be as many people waiting in line outside the hostess' station as there were sitting inside the restaurant actually eating. Giving the queue a quick once over, I don't feel too generous in saying that there were at least two hundred people standing in line waiting to get in.

While clearly people that dedicated to standing in that long of a line indicated that the food was promising, I had no desire to stand there for an hour or more just waiting to get a taste of it. At the same time, I also had no desire to drive aimlessly around Hartville, looking for an alternative. It was at that moment I remembered I had recently installed the GoodDining application on my G1 smartphone. I activated the program, waited for my GPS position to be acquired and started looking around the map for an alternative. Sadly, it was mostly fast food joints, which I wasn't in the mood for either. However, one of the restaurants that was listed nearby was a place called Carlo's Trattoria. Figuring that Italian might just hit the spot tonight, I decided to make my way over to the restaurant.

Carlo's Trattoria was located at 733 West Maple Street, Hartville, OH 44632 and can be reached at 330-877-4300. While there was information on the Internet about Carlo's, there was no website that I could identify as their own. From the street, Carlo's looks like a tiny building. Although there was parking available in front of the restaurant, it was already filled to the brim. Fortunately, there was additional parking in the rear of the restaurant.

I parked, grabbed my cellphone and approached the rear entrance to the restaurant:

Once inside, I marveled at how much larger the restaurant appears on the inside than on the outside. Clearly the whole Dr. - Who - Tardus - multi - dimensional - expansiveness was in full effect at this quaint little trattoria. There were multiple seating areas and chairs available up at the counter area. While I normally would've tried to find a small table for two, nothing except larger tables for six or eight people were available. Knowing full well that I would feel uncomfortable sitting at tables that large on a Friday night, I opted to sit at the counter. While I've never found that counter seats are very comfortable, they certainly give me an intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the service staff and the kitchen.

Here was a shot of the front of the menu:

Oddly enough, the lighting at the counter was somewhat muted. I've tried to make an effort to take photographs of menus for restaurants with no website so that you, gentle reader, can have a really good idea of the kind of food to expect should you decide to visit for yourself. Unfortunately, both inside pages of the menu had a dark green background. With the poor lighting and the even poorer color choice for the background, I can tell you right now that those pictures would've been illegible. That being said, I will say that the menu isn't overly complicated and contains common Italian dining choices: soups, salads, appetizers, hot subs, cold subs, pizzas, house specialties, and pastas. Prices seemed reasonable and the pastas ranged from $9 to $13.

One of the first things I noticed on the menu was that gnocchi was offered on the pasta menu. When my server came over to take my order, I asked him about the origins of the gnocchi. Our conversation went something like this:

"Is the gnocchi homemade?"
Smirking oddly, my server answered after a dramatic pause, "Yes."
"Um, okay, that didn't sound too convincing. Do I need to ask additional questions?"
"Well, the gnocchi is cooked here in the kitchen where we then serve it to you."

I smiled trying the lighten the mood. "Well, I would hope that it was cooked in your kitchen, regardless of where it was made."

Realizing that he was going to have to either fully embrace the lie or tell the truth, he finally admitted, "We have been told to tell customers that the gnocchi is homemade, but it really is made elsewhere."

Regardless of whether the gnocchi is homemade or not, I have to commend this young man for telling the truth. It also gives me pause about an establishment that would ask its employees to lie to customers when asked a very specific question. Perhaps the gnocchi is fabulous, whether it is made in house or not. I would think that a better tactic would be to have the servers push how good it tastes and de-emphasize (but not lie about) the lineage of the pasta in question. As it turns out, I would find several other unpleasant aspects about my visit tonight.

The other entree I had been contemplating was the chicken parmesan. With my mind made up concerning the gnocchi question, I decided to go ahead and order the chicken parmesan with the extra upgrade of the soup or salad. I opted to go with a garden salad with French dressing on the side:

The salad was fairly basic and consisted of the usual suspects with the addition of banana pepper rings. The salt, spice, and acidity that the banana peppers added to the overall flavor of the salad was actually very nice. I definitely think this was the right choice over the soup. As I sat there munching away at my salad, I started to observe the chaos that was the server station right in front of me. Reminiscent of a scene out of the movie Waiting..., the server station was a hub of activity during my entire visit. One of the activities performed at the station was the preparation of salads. That by itself was not very interesting.

What WAS interesting, however, was that salads more involved than simply a tongful of salad greens and a small plastic cup of dressing were being prepared there. One of the salads on the menu, an antipasto salad, had rolled-up cigars of ham as part of the presentation. To prepare this salad, one of the servers actually used ungloved hands to remove several slices of deli ham from a package, cut the slices in half with a knife and then rolled them up individually into cigars.

The problem I had with what I saw wasn't that the hands were gloved or ungloved. Personally, if sanitation is kept as priority number one, then the use of a glove can be superfluous. However, in this particular case, the same server who was preparing the salad was also one who had been running food and busing tables just moments earlier. Even with the most diligent of hand washers, this was not a good thing to see.

The other issue I noticed while eating my salad was an incident where a side towel fell onto the floor. Instead of throwing the dirty towel into a used bin to be rewashed, it was simply picked up off the floor and used to wipe down several sauce squirt bottles that were used at the sub/pizza making station. With the amount of traffic in the server station and it being a hectic time during service, the floor was more than likely teeming with lots of less-than-desirable critters. I'm just happy that I didn't order the antipasto salad or anything from the sub/pizza station. Then again, if they are this sloppy in full view of the restaurant, what was the kitchen (which isn't in plain view) like?

Along with my salad, my server brought me an order of Carlo's garlic bread:

Oddly enough, in comparison to many of the garlic breads out there, this one actually had garlic on it! It wasn't quite as forceful in flavor as other versions I've tried, but the nice balance between the garlic and the herbs was refreshing. In a nod to my garlic bread and French dressing addiction I alluded to in an earlier post about Parasson's, I tried this combination at Carlo's; good, but not quite the same.

Only moments after I finished my salad, my entree arrived:

At $13.24, this entree was the most expensive pasta/protein combo on the menu. However, the portion was immense. The chicken breast was at least one inch thick in spots and covered the entire oval platter. I'm not sure where Carlo was getting his chicken breasts, but those must be some really large birds. The coating was nicely fried and not greasy. The first couple of pieces from the end were a tad dry, but once I got further into the interior of the breast, the moistness really began showing through. The seasoning was spot on. At first I thought the cheese was plain old mozzarella, but upon tasting it and re-reading the menu, I realized it was actually a young shredded parmesan instead.

Accompanying my chicken parmesan was a side of spaghetti and marinara sauce (I could've chosen rigotoni in its place had I desired). Here was a close-up shot of the side of spaghetti:

The sauce had a nice simple tomato flavor, but didn't have any real depth or character. It wasn't bad, per se, it just didn't have a lot of personality to it. The pasta, sadly, was overcooked and served in a puddle of water. I surmised that the kitchen was most likely in the middle of being slammed, being that it was a Friday night, but honestly, I would've gladly waited an extra thirty seconds for the pasta to be drained properly before being tossed onto this platter and topped with sauce.

When my plate finally looked like this,

I realized that my stomach was quite full and asked for a container to bring home the remainder. What I ended up leaving with was still more than a pound of food. Based on what I was served and what I was seeing others being served, I quickly realized that you won't go away from Carlo's hungry. I paid my check, tipped my server extra generously for telling me the truth about the gnocchi and headed back out to my car to return home.

I have mixed feelings about Carlo's Trattoria. It offers your basic hearty pasta and red sauce kind of Italian food that most Americans think of as "Italian" food. In this sense it achieves a modicum amount of success in my mind. That being said, with the food sanitation issues I witnessed tonight and the information that my server finally confessed to me about the gnocchi, unless you are a persistent questioner like I am, you might find yourself purposely misinformed about their menu because of what the higher-ups have told the servers to say. That bothers me quite a lot.

This is one of those rare situations where I am neither going to recommend nor not recommend that you check out a restaurant. Based on the facts (and photographs) I've laid out in this review, I think that every reader must make up his or her own mind. Is this good basic Italian food? Yes. Is it unique or memorable? Not particularly. Are you willing to risk experiencing some of the sanitation issues I observed tonight? Well ... that answer is up to you.

Carlo's Trattoria on Urbanspoon Carlo's Trattoria on Restaurantica

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