69 S Palm Ave, Sarasota, FL 34236, (941) 951-0866
Cuisine: Italian-American, Pizza
Price Rating: $15-$25 per entree
Review Date: May 16, 2012 and May 18, 2012
This review is part of a series of restaurant reviews that follows The Watering Mouth’s new restaurant review guidelines. All future reviews will follow this template! Yay!
Background Info on the Review
Caragiulo’s Italian Restaurant in downtown Sarasota has been serving “Italian-American Soul Food” in Sarasota since 1989.
Warning: This may literally be the longest restaurant review post I have ever written. Since I was treated so nicely at Caragiulo’s, we got to taste at least 75% of their menu, no exaggeration. So what might be most time-efficient approach for you, Dear Reader, is to just go by picture and see what looks good to you and read from there – because if you ever wanted a thorough, in-depth exploration of a restaurant’s menu – well, look no further!
Also, I have marked my favorite with asterisks so you can scan that way if you’d like. (****)
Tamas and I went together for this tasting and left there feeling on top of the world from the service we received, even if our full bellies made us feel like we were much closer to the ground than usual. And our server, Alejandro, could easily be placed in the most attentive, knowledgeable and pleasant server category in the Server Hall of Fame.
Seriously, he was that good.
But from a disclosure standpoint, since the restaurant knew I was going for the purpose of reviewing their food, it is expected that I would receive great service. For the complete idea of what it’s like to dine at this restaurant from an anonymous, unbiased perspective, scroll down to the bottom of this post, past the miles of food descriptions, to see what the Cloaked Review Team experienced.
As is usual with my reviews nowadays, I am able to experience a few bites of several menu choices and report on my thoughts. But this time was exemplary: Tamas and I were served no less than 25 different menu offerings to taste and yes, we needed to be rolled out of the restaurant afterwards.
The most exciting part of this is that there were actually 3 things served to me that I thought I didn’t like before I went: calamari, eggplant and cannoli. And I can now proudly say that I really like these things now — they just prepared them really well and it converted me. How exciting!
Cheri’s Food Review
At Caragiulo’s, you are given this focaccia**** for a starter bread and we both fell in love with it immediately. I had to warn Tamas not to eat too much because I knew we were about to be fed like pigs. Their focaccia is a very soft bread with a light flavoring on top, looks like thin pizza sauce with some yummy herbs. I was able to control myself just enough to eat half a piece and then move it out of my sight.
We both ordered House Wines to drink and we liked them both very much; I ordered the white Pinot Grigio and Tamas ordered the red Merlot. We are definitely not aficionados of wine and would describe them as not too sweet and not too dry – just right. But that’s all the description you’ll get out of us on that!
Mozzarella Stuffed Risotto Balls with sundried tomato pesto and pepperonata
These are called Arancini Telefono, which means something like “little, telephone-like orange balls”. This makes me laugh to think of but once I looked up why, it totally made sense. They are balls of risotto with mozzarella that are lightly battered and fried to a soft, chewy crisp. They are light and tender and perfect for a little appetizer. And they are called that in Italian because they resemble little oranges and when you pull them apart, they typically have those long strings of cheese that are supposed to look like telephone cords! Hm, I wonder if they’ll still call them those when no one has landlines anymore. I think “Little Orange Cell Phone Chargers” sounds a lot less cute.
Fried Calamari and Zucchini with spicy Sicilian sauce and anchovy mayo
This was one of the exciting parts of the meal because I told John, one of the Caragiulo brothers, that I don’t like calamari. He gave me this questioning look, like “Are you sure?” And honestly, I’m the kind of eater who is literally down to try anything so I agreed to try them and try to be persuaded. And oh my, am I glad I did. Soft, warm, not at all chewy, breaded lightly, totally delicate. Completely the opposite of what I’d had before and soooo good! And the anchovy mayo sounds scary, but tastes deliciously salty and is the perfect accompaniment — not at all fishy. The spicy Sicilian sauce that came was just as good. It was great to have a couple sauces to choose from. John tells me the secret is in the preparation: they soak them in milk for a period of time before preparing them and this is what makes them so fabulous. Loved the calamari — new fan!!
****Mussels in a sausage, roasted tomato and Peroni broth with grilled bread
This was the first thing I ate of the appetizers so it wouldn’t get cold. I am a huge mussels fan — have eaten them in the US, in France, on a boat with a goat. And I love them so much! But I’ve actually only ever had them in white sauce. This sausage tomato sauce was actually really yummy, and while I usually shy away from sausage because sometimes there are strange spices that I don’t like, this was actually so pleasant and a great combination for the perfectly cooked mussels.
Antipasti of cured meats & cheeses with goat cheese, fig spread and roasted red peppers
What can I say about this? It was great. There were three types of meats, which Tamas loved, so I had to fight him to get my fair share. And the last one was smoked, which isn’t my favorite treatment, but I could count on Tamas to finish them off. Some were more peppery, the accompaniments of goat cheese, fig spread and roasted red peppers were a great compliment.
Bruschetta with mozzarella and peppers
The bruschetta was obviously freshly prepared and really well-done, but compared to the others, it felt like nothing special because we’ve had bruschetta so many times in our lives! It was fun to try the others and I quickly lost interest in this one to favor two helping of mussels (there are advantages to having a spouse who doesn’t eat seafood). But Tamas really loved this one, so it was more of a compromise.
Housemade Meatball – beef and veal
This was something extra they threw in so we could be sure to try one of their meatballs. John tells us that everyone just adores their meatballs so we had to partake. It had a complex flavor, with some herbs and the meat was very tasty. I will put in a plug for the meatballs because Tamas absolutely fell in love with them. I think he just might get this the next time we come. But one thing — if you don’t like spicy foods, maybe skip this one — the sauce has a real kick!
****Chopped “1989” Salad — grilled chicken, genoa salami, chickpeas, tomatoes, pepperoncini and parmesan dressing
This was Tamas’ favorite of the two salads that we tried, and maybe it was mine too, I’m having trouble deciding — but he really liked it a lot. Our waiter Alejandro likes it the best too, and he told us that it was patron favorite too. Liken it to eating a caesar; it has a great combo of flavors and reminds me of a pasta dish that I make because it is so rich and creamy.
Warm Goat Cheese Salad — candied walnuts, grape tomatoes, pickled mushrooms, onion and roasted shallot vinaigrette
I actually really liked this salad while Tamas wasn’t as much of a fan. It was the pickled mushrooms that put him off I think, and it was a bit of a strange choice, but I thought it worked. And when you get a bite of that candied walnut, it makes everything taste dynamite. And the dressing was light enough to moisten the ingredients without overpowering it.
****Pear and Gorgonzola Flatbread, pears with caramelized onions and white balsamic-honey drizzle
This flatbread combination had a very delicate flavor, with a sweet and salty balance and Tamas and I both fell in love with it. It was the perfect little appetizer (if you weren’t already stuffed like we were, haha) and we each had to calmly agree to share it evenly, though he was heavily eyeing my last piece. I would go back for just this flatbread, it was that good. It’s practically dessert!
Lasagna with rustic beef and sausage ragu (meat-based sauce)
We both agreed that this lasagna was good, or fine. But it was just nothing special in comparison to the rest of the samples we were given. Sometimes I find that an issue because I want to give a dish enough credit because this was good, and I think that any serial lasagna chooser will be happy with this choice.
****Penne Pasolini with chicken, gorgonzola cream and sun-dried tomatoes
This pasta is presumably named after Pier Paolo Pasolini, a controversial 20th century film director and poet. I assume this because of the many homages to Italian films that adorn the walls of Caragiulo’s, so it would be fitting to name a pasta after him. And this was also one of the best meals of the night. It had just the right bite with the gorgonzola cheese and Tamas was a huge fan of this dish as well. The pasta was cooked perfectly and the sun-dried tomatoes added the lightest touch of sweetness to the rest of the dish that was perfectly cooked al dente.
Braised Beef Tortelloni in a tomato cream vodka sauce with pancetta
This dish was probably in a tie for best dish of the night according to Tamas. He is a big meat fan, in general, obviously, and I think this dish had just the right amount of meat for him. Creamy and a bit salty, it had a weight that the other pasta dishes didn’t have, and that’s just perfectly fine in Tamas’ book.
Linguine & Clams in a white wine sauce
I thought that I liked clams when I tried this dish, but I wasn’t sure. This made me sure. They were salty, soft, not at all chewy, delicate and not overpowering. I didn’t eat much of the pasta with it because I needed to save a bit more room, but it was again cooked very well, just al dente.
****Linguine Fra Diavolo with shrimp, clams, mussels, calamari and whitefish
Fra Diavolo means “Brother Devil” in Italian, which probably refers to the term that it’s a spicy sauce. Celebrity Chef Mario Batali says it’s rarely eaten in Italy but that’s okay — more for us! The sauce reminds me of traditional Italian “arrabbiata” sauce, which means “angry” in Italian. I smile every time I see this sauce name because I just think of it being so angry that it turns red. Or your face red! This dish commonly has a lot of different seafood options, and our server Alejandro usually recommends this when someone wants seafood at Caragiulo’s. I was pleasantly surprised that all the different kinds of seafood — shrimp, more clams, delicate whitefish, and calamari were all cooked just to perfection and nothing was overcooked. That is a real feat usually with more than one type of seafood, but this is definitely something I would have again.
Penne a la Zasa with spicy garlic oil, sundried tomatoes, capers, broccoli and toasted breadcrumbs
This was a very fresh tasting pasta dish with a great mix of vegetables. The broccoli was not overcooked and very vibrant green and we had fun trying to guess what made the breadcrumbs green; maybe they were mixed with a little broccoli water or pesto? We couldn’t tell, but we thought the flavors went well together in this dish.
Spaghetti with Ragu
I feel bad that I consider this dish just like I did the lasagna – that is was a fine dish, but it was really just not as exciting as the other dishes. But if you are a “choose something safe” type-eater when you go to a restaurant, this is a good choice. The pasta is always well-cooked and the sauce was a nice, meaty accompaniment.
Housemade Ravioli Special was Portobella mushroom ravioli with goat cheese, pine nuts, spinach and marsala cream sauce
This was a special of the night but was my least favorite dish of the evening. I really love all of the ingredients in this dish but it was the sauce that got me. I know that a lot of people like Caragiulo’s marsala sauce, but I am not one of those people (my cloaked reviewer ordered it and liked it!). But personally, I think this would have been better with a different sauce, to me, like maybe a white cream sauce. This reminded me more of a heavy beef sauce, which isn’t my preference. I loved the goat cheese and pine nuts together, though Tamas is not a fan of goat cheese. But keep in mind it was a special anyhow, so not available all the time.
****Artichoke Crusted Butterfish was served on a bed of baby spinach, lemon caper butter and a risotto cake
Sorry for having used flash in this one; the image doesn’t do the dish justice. Alejandro warned us that this was the most popular dish at the restaurant. And I take back all the “favorite” talk that I carelessly threw around in the beginning of this post: this was my absolute favorite of the night. I mean, even stuffed to the gills, I made room to really try this one. If you like fish, then you absolutely must try this dish. It’s like…well, heaven? Is that enough of an adjective for you? Each of the tastes perfectly complemented one another and the fish was soft, delicate and moist. Try this one or be forever doomed to a life of less-than-perfect fish dishes.
Olive Oil Poached Salmon with fava bean succotash, basil vinaigrette and garlic broccoli rabe
I hate doing this to my beloved salmon, but compared to the butterfish meal, this was just so-so. I mean, it was cooked very well, had lovely accompaniments, and actually offered a bit more food than the butterfish. Also, I’m pretty sure this is one of the healthier meal choices, so choose this one if that concerns you. But if you want real sinful amazingness, get the butterfish, even if it is a smaller portion than the salmon.
Soft, creamy, and delicious, like any piccata should be — the chicken was juicy and tender and the sauce was creamy and buttery. This dish and the one below can be switched sauce-wise to suit your tastes. I obviously prefer the piccata to the marsala sauce, but if you’re a marsala fan, then trust your gut!
You already know that I am not a fan of this sauce, but if you’re into marsala, I thought that the veal was much better suited to live in this sauce than the portobella mushroom ravioli was. So if you like that sauce, this is a safe choice. I’m sure it goes well with the chicken, too.
****Eggplant Parmigiana with ricotta and plum tomato sauce
And the extreme surprise of the night for both of us; we both thought that we didn’t like eggplant but this dish turned that all around for us. And in the two weeks that have passed since we did our tasting we had eggplant AGAIN because of it! I even feel a bit weird saying this, but I actually liked the eggplant parmigiana more than the lasagna. And the even weirder thing is that Tamas, Mr. Meat Eater Till He Dies, liked it more, too! I guess I have a new tactic to trick him into eating vegetarian now! Yay!
****Housemade Gelato and Sorbetto Sampler
Four scoops: Basil Vanilla, Guava, Mango and Chocolate Espresso; I’ve ordered them by least to most impressive:
The Guava was good and sweet, and if it had been all by itself, I would have been happy. But compared to the others…Then the Chocolate Espresso was “just like drinking a cup of coffee” said Tamas. We really liked this one. The Basil Vanilla flavors were so perfectly matched; I haven’t had this flavor pairing before, and I’m normally a bit hesitant with herbs in sweet things ever since I regrettably tried herbal toothpaste in Italy once. (Gross). But these flavors went so well together — I just loved it! And then my favorite: the MANGO. I can best describe it using the Willy Wonka scene where he says, “The SNOZZBERRIES taste like SNOZZBERRIES!” You take a bite of this sorbet and you literally think you have a bite of perfectly fresh mango in your mouth, it was fantastic and definitely my favorite because I love mangos.
I really loved this Tiramisu (literally “pick me up”, in Italian, like having a little pick-me-up when you’re down). The reason I loved it is because it was pretty subdued as far as flavors go. I like it when the coffee flavor doesn’t overpower the other flavors, and this one was subtle. I know that my reviewer really wished the coffee flavor had been more pronounced, however, so take my opinion with a grain of salt or maybe a shot of espresso on the side!
****Chocolate Chip Cannoli
The thing about Cannoli (literally “little tubes”) is that I thought I didn’t like them. I mean, I’ve tried quite a few cannoli in my time, and I guess maybe I actually don’t like them, but I absolutely loved this one. They tell me that the shell of their cannoli is one of the very few things that they don’t make at the restaurant, but this was probably my favorite part. That and the fact that the filling wasn’t overpowering in a too-much-ricotta-cheese sort of way. I think this is why I was rather partial to the lasagna as well, because I’m not a huge fan of noticeable ricotta cheese. So if you like ricotta, maybe these cannoli won’t be your favorite!
New York Cheesecake made with ricotta and caramel sauce
I thought that the amount of ricotta cheese in this cheesecake was also pleasantly understated, but then again, I don’t like ricotta really at all, so if you like ricotta cheesecakes, you’ll probably love this one. It was a delicate flavor, as were many of the flavors we tasted this evening, and the caramel sauce on top was thicker than you’d expect, but good. This wasn’t my favorite dessert of the night, but standing alone, it was a good dessert.
Chocolate Espresso Torte
This torte was a very soft, dense, thick, stick-to-your-ribs type of cake. The coffee flavor was rich and delicious. By the end of this monumental tasting, however, we could only get a couple bites down each, but we both thought that if chocolate coffee desserts were your thing, you’d be really satisfied with this one.
Cloaked Restaurant Review
Everything about Caragiulo’s seems to strike a balance of being up to date and classic at the same time, of being fresh while feeling like it’s been done for years. The dining room is sprinkled with foreign versions of domestic classic films, anything from Love Story to New York, New York. And while it may sound cliche, looking around and seeing a young DeNiro or Pacino frozen in time while delivering a fondly remembered performance gives you a sort of warm feeling.
Our entire visit was just that — an extremely warm experience. We came a little before the dinner rush since Caragiulo’s doesn’t take reservations for less than 6 people, and we were seated in a dining area that was maybe 1/4 full at around 6:00pm. Our server was friendly, knowledgeable about the specials and wasted no time in visiting us, and after a bit of language-barrier awkwardness, was off to submit our drink and appetizer orders.
Lemon Drop – This was served with the usual garnish – a slice of lemon on the edge and a sugar-rimmed glass. It was delicious, strong and light without being overbearing. Not too lemon-y; just balanced and sweet.
Appetizers – Arancini Telefono and Polenta Board:
The Arancini was almost perfectly fried to a golden crisp, and remained light instead of tasting like it had been forgotten in oil for too long. The polenta was no less appealing, with a small piece of chicken nestled within a rich, creamy polenta that left you satisfied and still hungry for your main course.
Italian Wedding Soup:
We both ended up choosing the Italian Wedding Soup. It’s an easy litmus test to gauge what you may be in store for with your meal, and the soup did not disappoint. Like the other appetizers, it was a light chicken broth that was helped by the inclusion of pasta and meatballs, not weighed down by it. A hint of lemon contributed to that feeling, and we were both glad to find that the broth was thinner than some other local Italian eateries, who tend to thicken it in an attempt to make it more filling.
The Chicken Marsala:
We agreed that it was well-prepared and very well presented, but it didn’t seem to stand out in the same way the other dishes had. We’ve certainly had worse, but we might have been expecting more after such a stellar beginning. That being said, it was a very satisfactory dish that didn’t leave anyone disappointed. Perhaps our expectations for this were a little high after the bar had been set early-on.
The Highlight of the Meals, The Pork Chop Special:
To say that the plate was well-presented would be a gross understatement. The butterflied pork was a veritable work of art, and might have been left intact if it wasn’t so delicious. The pork was perfectly cooked, remaining tender and moist and retaining its crisp, light breading.
We put in for the gelato (one banana, one chocolate) and Tira Mi Su, both staples of Italian restaurants that we wanted to see stand up against previous experiences elsewhere.
This is the only part of the meal we felt an improvement was necessary. The gelato, while full of smooth, rich flavor, was very icy, and we had to work through a few large chunks of ice every other bite or so. The Tiramisu, traditionally prepared soaked in a rich coffee or espresso usually mixed with a liquor, was not soaked in anything, and while it wasn’t dry, it lacked that coffee flavor so commonly identified with the dish. Though the dessert was still well-received.
Also, they actually only gave us half an order of Tiramisu apparently, but as you can see from the picture we didn’t even notice. But they noticed it, corrected it, and gave us another “half” order to go!
All-in-all, we were pleased with the delightful satisfaction of having had a fulfilling meal in a restaurant that is at once friendly and casual without losing some of its formality and dignity. For those looking to enjoy a well-prepared, authentic Italian meal, Caragiulo’s will certainly live up to your expectations without striking too heavy a blow on the purse.
Cloaked Review Ratings
|Food Quality & Menu||4.75|
Go to my Flickr account to check out my Caragiulo’s Italian Restaurant Review images set to see the full set of pics.
Tamas and I had a lovely time at our visit to Caragiulo’s. The ambiance of the place is really inviting and feels warm and relaxed. The food is overall pretty amazing and I am certain that any Italian lover will be pleased with a stop at this Sarasota favorite.
QUESTION: Which picture/description above looks like the most appetizing thing to you?