Monday, July 15, 2013

Review: Johnny Carino's Italian Restaurant on 290 and FM 1960

Recently a friend of mine mentioned chain Italian inspired restaurants.  That made me think of some places that stand out very well (Carabba's, Brio) and those that once were very cool but now are grasping at straws (Olive Garden, Macaroni Grill).  While pizza is hard to mess up, the variety of types of Italian cuisine, combined with the North American iterations on them make them hit or miss with the general public.  Throw in the complication of a gluten free diet, and Houston, we may have a problem.  However, this friend talked about how Johnny Carino's has a gluten free menu with Italian Inspired items--pasta and pizza specifically--which taste good, satisfy and are reasonably priced.  This piqued my curiousity, so I grabbed my kiddos and made my way out to 290 at FM 1960 to give them a shot.

The exterior of this place is faux-Tuscan, clearly.  The interior has wide open spaces with a clear view of the cooking line in the kitchen, wine storage wall and other such touches you expect to see. While seeming like typical Italian inspired places that about all over North America, overall it was fine--I didn't feel cramped and it was colourful and inviting.

Background info per their website:
In 1997, Fired Up Restaurant Concepts acquired the only five existing Johnny Carino's Italian Kitchen, infusing them with the energy and passion we know today. Starting with Chef Carino in the early years, and carrying forward today with Chef Chris Peitersen, Johnny Carino's has developed many signature dishes that respect the authentic Italian traditions, while creating unique flavor profiles that express Johnny Carino's passion and creativity, and commitment to quality food at a great value.
Caesar Salad at Johnny Carino's 
Okay, this does sound interesting.  I'm game and willing to give them a shot.  One thing that especially caught my eye was the fact that they had a fairly decent gluten free menu.  This is interesting to me personally as I know a couple of families with children who have gluten sensitivity and this means that they do A LOT of their own cooking.  The main reasons for going gluten free have to do with diseases of the intestine, some ADHA children do better on a gluten free diet or in some cases, religious restrictions.  Gluten itself is a protein complex found primarily in wheat, barley, rye, spelt or semolina.  Not all biologists believe oats contain them.  In people with Coeliac disease (an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine), which can lead to skin rashes, constipation or diarrhea, fatigue, failure to grow (in children) and low immune response to disease, along with some vitamin deficiencies.  The only problem is that gluten is found in so many different products in so many different ways, it makes eating process foods or eating out in restaurants difficult, if not impossible.  On top of than, some gluten free starches have a tendency to be dry, bland or crumbly, given glulten is a protein that binds starch molecules together and contributes to the sponginess and moistness of breads and cakes.  The fact that Johnny Carino's is trying to offer these options to their customers is a great thing, and as someone who doesn't have a gluten sensitivity, I wanted to see how they might taste.

Pizza Dippers and Sauce at Johnny Carino's
I brought the kids along and I studied their menu carefully.  I noted the Tuscan Ribeye is 12-ounce cut of Nolan Ryan All Natural Beef, marinated in a fresh garlic, rosemary and seasoning blend and served with fresh vegetables and choice of gluten-free penne or spaghetti with tomato, meat sauce or spicy marinara sauce.  I went with it, medium, chose the gluten free Penne pasta with their meat sauce.  My daughter tried a kid's gluten free pizza, served on an Udi's Gluten free crust, with bacon on it.  While my son went with the non-gluten free pizza dippers--a cheese pizza, no sauce under the cheese, with warm marinara sauce for dipping.  How did they do?

Bacon Pizza on Udi's Gluten Free Crust
Well, we noshed on a Caesar salad while waiting--nice crisp veggies, garlic and herb Caesar dressing with fresh grated Parmesan cheese.  Very tasty, something most places get right each time.  When the kids' food came out, my son was very happy with his pizza dippers--pronounced the sauce bold and rich, tasted yummy with the gooey, stringy cheese of the pizza dippers.  My daughter invited my to taste her bacon pizza with the Udi's gluten-free crust.  I took a bite--it was a very nice, thin, crusty/chewy textured crust.  It wasn't as yeasty or as salty as other pizza crusts, but it didn't crumble or fall apart, and wasn't dry like burnt toast either.  The cheese was properly stringy and the bacon nice and smokey.  Kudos to Carino's on that one.

Tuscan Ribeye with Veggies and Gluten Free Penne Pasta
I can't resist a good broiled steak, and my bias runs towards Ribeyes and Porterhouse T-bones.  This ribeye may be been 12 oz precooked weight, but it was not scrimpy in the least.  It was cooked to a proper medium with a hot pink center.  It had a very tangy, sour yet savoury seasoning--kgarlic, olive oil, salt, rosemary and dill were the main tastes I caught, but wasn't sure of the exact ingredients.  It cut very easily, was quite tender and quite juicy.  While no replacement for a good ol' Texas steakhouse steak, it was a good one nonetheless and as it was cooked/seasoned well, no steak sauce was needed to consume it.  The roasted veggies were a nice mix of broccoli, yellow squash, zucchini, red peppers and onions.  They were fresh, a little crunchy, not limpand a nice side to the steak.  The pasta was chewy--firm but tender, and though the texture is a little different than the standard semolina pasta with gluten, it didn't have an odd twang in how it tasted at all.  If you hadn't been told it was gluten free, you might not even realize it.  The sauce was tangy and a little spicy, but not overly so and it went well with the pasta.  Nice job, Johnny Carino's.

Lemon Cream Cake at Carino's
Since none of us are on a mandatory gluten free diet, we did elect to have some dessert--the kiddos went with some vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup, which made them happy.  I however wanted to try one of their unique in-house desserts.  As much as I like chocolate cake, cheesecake and tiramisu, I passed on them to instead try their Lemon Cream Cake: two layers of lemon soaked cream cake filled with a lemon mascarpone mousse and finished with powdered sugar.  I'm a fan of Italian Cream Cake--it's not too sweet, kind of creamy and dense.  And this had those elements with it but in a semi-sweet, semi-tart lemonade essence which reminded me a bit of a the taste of a lemon chiffon cake one of my grandmothers made when I was a young boy, but more creamy like lemon custard ice cream and in a smaller size.  This dessert is not gluten free, but it is a good one to have on a hot Houston day, due to the citrus and tartness of it all.  Excellent dessert, Carino's!

Report Card for Johnny Carino's 290 at FM 1960
Not gluten free, but VERY TASTY Italian Bread with Herb-
infused Olive Oil for dipping
     Tuscan Steak: A 
     Gluten Free Penne Pasta: A-
     Roasted Veggies: A
     Pizza Dippers: A+ (per Jason)
     Bacon Pizza on gluten-free crust: A- (per Helena)
     Lemon Cream Cake: A+
     Speed: A-
     Friendliness: A
     Dining and Kitchen Area: A
     Men's Room: A-
Atmosphere (Kitschy, faux-Tuscan Italian joint): B+

Overall Grade: A-

Jason enjoying Ice Cream with
chocolate syrup in a gelato dish
Before I wrap up, I want to announce a contest I am having to Houston area readers (or to readers outside of Houston who will be in the Houston area within the next 60 days): is giving away a $25.00 gift card (does not include gratuity--be sure to tip service staff appropriately in cash or with credit).  This gift card will be given away on August 8, 2013.  To enter, either post a comment or email me your response to the following:  Why is having a good Gluten Free menu is an important dining option to you or someone you know?  Responses must be WELL THOUGHT OUT.  Short responses or spam responses will NOT be entered into the drawing.  Responses must be posted in the comment section of this entry or emailed to me by Midnight, August 4, 2013.  The gift card has NO CASH VALUE, is only worth $25.00 towards a meal purchase at any Houston area Carino's Restaurants.  When the winner is announced, I will send an email asking for a mailing address to send the Gift Card.  I promise that I will not spam you via Email nor will I send you any junk snail mail.

Johnny Carino's has 6 Houston area locations.

I visited the one located at:
19820 Northwest Freeway
Houston, TX 77065

Sunday – Thursday 11AM – 10PM
Friday – Saturday 11AM – 11PM

Eat Happy, Y'all!!!
Mangiare felicemente tutti voi!!!

Carino's Country Italian on Urbanspoon

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