Carrabba's stays true to roots

Mama Mandola would be proud. Twenty-seven years after Damian Mandola and Johnny Carrabba opened the first Carrabba's Italian Grill to honor their mothers' authentic Italian recipes, Chattanooga's Carrabba's is keeping tradition alive with its made-from-scratch meals.

"We mix our own sauces, we chop our own basil. Nothing is frozen," Pete Kling, owner and managing partner of Chattanooga's Carrabba's, told me. "Everything is extremely fresh."

photo From left, Tim Macera and Pete Kling

On weekdays Carrabba's opens at 4 p.m., but when I stopped by early one afternoon the open kitchen was already bustling with life. Knives sounded against wooden chopping blocks, forks clinked against metal mixing bowls and a fire flickered in the wood-burning pizza oven. The air smelled of garlic and warm cheese.

Carrabba's cooks are smart to start early, particularly given the popularity of the recent limited time special the Trio d'Italia, which Pete calls "overwhelmingly successful." The Trio offers customers their choice of three classic recipes that include dishes such as fettuccine in creamy homemade Alfredo sauce, baked manicotti hand-stuffed with four different cheeses, or juicy woodgrilled sirloin steak topped with famous Lombardo Marsala sauce made with imported red cooking wine reduced with butter and onion pieces and mixed with mushrooms.

Pete attributes this special wine sauce to helping put Carrabba's "on the map."

Other popular dishes that feature the Lombardo Marsala include the chicken or veal Marsala as well as the limited time Spiedino Marsala that includes breaded shrimp and grilled scallops in lemon-butter sauce. On the sweeter side, the limoncello bread pudding is also back for a limited time, baked fresh with sweet and creamy custard, Madagascar vanilla beans and drizzled with Tramonto Limoncello liqueur sauce and served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Carrabba's menu changes frequently in order to utilize the freshest seasonal ingredients, but do not fret. Not all good things are fleeting at the popular restaurant. Be sure to check out Carrabba's standing specials, including the ever-popular Amore Mondays, which features a fixed three-course meal starting at just $12. On Wine Wednesday, Carrabba's offers special discounts on wine including $10 off all bottles and $5 glasses of homemade sangria. And don't forget to take advantage of happy hour, which runs every day from 3-7 p.m. offering draft beer and select spirits at half off.

I'll drink to that. Cheers, to Mama Mandola.