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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Foodbuzz Event at Carrabba's Italian Grill

Over the weekend I was invited to participate in a Foodbuzz Tastemaker Event at a local Carrabba’s Italian Grill. This was such a wonderful opportunity to not only get a "behind the scenes" look at Carrabba’s and their food philosophy, but also the chance to meet with other Foodbuzz Featured Publishers. Brent came along with me for the experience.

Before I get started, let me give you a little background on Carrabba's. The first Carrabba's started in 1986 as a family restaurant in Houston. Several year's later, they partnered with the parent company of Outback Steakhouse and added several more locations. Today Carrabba's Italian Grill operates in over half of the U.S. with nearly 250 restaurants.

I've eaten at Carrabba’s many times over the years and honestly I've never been disappointed with their food. I think they are one of only two - maybe three - chain restaurants that have consistently good food that is seasoned perfectly and cooked well. After meeting with many of Carrabba's employees this past weekend, I realized that this is due to two simple factors - passion for what they do and fresh ingredients.

Our event was hosted at the Carrabba's Italian Grill at 700 N. Dale Mabry in Tampa, FL. Brent and I know this location well because it isn't too far from where we use to live.


Once everyone arrived and introduced themselves, we walked over to the open kitchen to watch a demonstration of pasta cooking techniques and pizza making.

Jay, Joel, and Josh lead the demonstration 
These guys had a wealth of knowledge and shared so many great tips on the best way to cook pasta.
Some highlights include:

- Always cooking pasta in clean, boiling water.
- Add salt once the water is at a full boil.
- They recommend cooking no more than one pound of pasta to one gallon of water.
- Use a spoon or ladle to stir short cuts of pasta, and a two prong serving fork for long pastas. Always use a spoon for filled pastas such as ravioli.
- Never rinse your pasta!

I think the best tip we were given was that when cooking long pastas, instead of dropping it right into your pot, you should swirl it around first to soften it.

They also recommend adding 1oz of salt to one gallon of water. I personally think that is too much for my taste, but to each their own.

During the pasta demonstration they prepared the above rigatoni for us to taste, as well as a simple pesto pasta and another one with their house red sauce. I believe it's technically called the pomodoro sauce... but don't hold me to that. I was a wee bit too busy eating at that moment.

Both of these pastas were simple, but very tasty. A side salad and a hunk of bread and I would be in comfort food heaven.

One seemingly small detail they shared with us was how they cut their boiling time for a pot of pasta from 20 minutes to 7 by changing the type of pot they use. Having worked in hospitality for years and seeing first hand how many restaurants don't care about "improving" on things that work "just fine", I really appreciated their approach and trying to find ways to make what they do more efficient.

I was tempted to ask if I could buy on these pots from them. Like Carrabba's (and nearly all restaurants for that matter), I cook with gas at home and it takes FOREVER for me to boil water.

From pasta we moved onto the pizza station and the wood-burning grill. Here Jay took the lead.

Jay might look familiar to you, he can be seen in Carrabba's commercials.

As we shifted down the line, it went from great to even better. I love pasta, but I don't think I could live without pizza.

Jay walked us through making two pizzas that we would later get to enjoy - he made a plain cheese and a classic margarita.

There were a few things that really stuck with me during this part of the demonstration. The first - add a light layer of olive oil and brush it all over to your dough before adding anything else. This will keep the crust from getting soggy. I've only started making pizzas at home recently so this was new to me and was a great takeaway tip.

Carrabbas strives for the best and freshest ingredients as possible. Joel said while they prefer roma tomatoes for the pizza, with the recent recall, they went wth grape instead.

Jay also explained to us the importance of seasoning from high above your dish. I do this instinctively at home because it makes me feel "fancier" for some reason. (Just being honest!) But he explained that this allows the entire dish to have an even amount of seasoning. 

Pizzas are in the oven!

Finally it was time to sit down and enjoy some great food and speak a little further with the Carrabba’s team. I'll start with the food! For our meal, we were treated to their seasonal specials.

Peach Sangria
White Zinfindel, Absolut Apeach Vodka, Patron Citronge with a splash of citrus. Served with fresh lemon wedge and a strawberry

I believe I've mentioned on here before that I don’t' like peaches or peach flavored food. Maybe I should change it to I don't mind peach because I actually liked this drink a lot. Light, refreshing, slightly fruity. A perfect summer sangria in my opinion.

Margarita pizza
Fresh tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella cheese

The crust was fantastic and full of flavor. I’m a sucker for wood or brick oven pizzas.

  Olive oil and herb dipping sauce

The herb mixture is made fresh and in house. They also told us that the bread they serve takes 30 hours to make before it hits the table.
Yes, you read that right - 30 hours. For Bread.

Parmesan-crusted Chicken
Pounded thin and then coated in a panko, parmesan, and romano cheese mixture. Topped with an arugula, tomato, and parmesan salad tossed in lemon vinaigrette.

Joel told us the inspiration for this dish was something he threw together for dinner one night while cooking for his family. The side is zucchini which is sautéed in the pomodoro sauce. Even though the chicken is essentially fried, this dish isn't heavy. The lemon vinaigrette and peppery arugula paired nicely with the crispy chicken.

Prosciutto-wrapped pork tenderloin
Served with an apple and fig port wine sauce.

The pork was juicy and just slightly pink inside which is how I prefer it. The sauce was slightly sweet and paired nicely with the pork.

Pasta Rambo
Shrimp, mushrooms, spinach, and tomatoes in a lemon basil butter sauce and served over

Out of the three dishes, this is the one I would have ordered if I just went for dinner randomly one night. It has all of my favorite ingredients, so of course I loved it.

Lemoncello Bread Pudding
Brioche baked with vanilla beans and custard. Served with vanilla ice cream and homemade lemoncello.

To be honest with you - I don't like bread pudding. All bread pudding, not just this one for the record. It's a texture thing for me, but I tried a few bites. It had a slight lemon flavor and wasn't overly sweet. Overall, I was found the flavor pleasing. If it had been cheesecake I would have devoured the whole thing.

As we were enjoying our meal and savoring each bite, we were able to have a Q&A with Joel, the proprietor DJ, and some of the Carrabba’s corporate staff. This was by far my favorite part of the day. They each shared their passion for the food, what they each do within the company, as well as how they got started with Carrabba’s. Joel for example has been with the company for 21 years, which can be rare feat in the restaurant business. Their enthusiasm was quite infectious and they are truly committed to upholding Carrabba's motto of "when you're here - you're family".

And if they hadn't been gracious enough, we each left with a bag filled with some goodies.

Included was a note from the proprietor, a salt and pepper grinder, Carrabba’s olive oil and their housemade herb mixture. Which I kept opening and taking deep sniffs of the rest of the afternoon. Smelled like Italian heaven.

A huge thanks to the staff at the South Tampa Carrabba's and Carrabba's corporate staff. We had a great time getting to know you and seeing behind the scenes a little bit.

Full disclosure: This was a marketing event hosted by Carrabba's for Foodbuzz Featured Publishers. While we did receive free food, drinks, and items to take home, the thoughts expressed in this post are my own.

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AllThingsYummy said...

Wow, sounds like a fun event. I'll have to see if there is a Carrabbas near me.

kathleen said...

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