55 Maple Street, Brookfield, MA
Ever wonder what the old-fashioned Italian dining experience really felt like? There are a couple places left in Worcester where you can still find plastic grape clusters on the walls and tripe on the menu. But for a truly retro-Italian dining experience, fill up the tank and head west to the Brookfields. There you’ll find Carmella’s on Route 9; open the menu and read the adventure of how Chubby Panarelli started a restaurant on Shrewsbury Street that remained there, family-run, for generations. Then, improbably, it touched down in Brookfield.
That was twenty-five years ago; when I walked into Carmella’s last week it had the feeling of a place time forgot. The décor’s a bit weary and they even have an ancient cigarette machine out in the lounge ~ and not as a whimsical decoration, but as fully functioning dispenser with current pricing. The menu boasts “Full Liquor Privileges,” an expression that has faded to the Northwest Territories and pockets of Rhode Island.
OK… Carmella’s not shiny and brand new. But is their dining experience worth a twenty-minute drive? We decided to let the cuisine speak for itself.
My friend and I arrived early on a Sunday evening and were shown to a table in Carmella’s large dining room. Brandon, our server, brought menus and took our drink orders. Throughout the meal he would be attentive and professional, but for now we turned our attention to the menu and soon made our selections.
Carmella’s Antipasto salad was an excellent start. Icy mixed greens were topped with cucumber slices, tomato wedges and perfectly fresh red onion rings. Over this were criss-crossed strips of prosciutto and imported ham, half-rounds of salami, provolone cheese and chunks of flaky tuna. Every forkful held a discovery and at the end I sopped the tasty oil and vinegar dressing with chunks of crusty Italian bread. Fresh, light and tasty; there’s nothing old-fashioned about that.
For my entrée, I decided to stick with one of the staples of Italian cuisine, Homemade Lasagna. To further test the kitchen’s way around the basics, I ordered it with the Meatball & Sausage upgrade. I cringe recalling all the bready tasteless meatballs I’ve suffered through in the past year, so I had high hopes for Carmella’s. They nailed every detail.
The pasta in Carmella’s lasagna still had al dente firmness and was layered with cheese, meat and marinara sauce. Sounds pretty basic, but where it excelled was in its flavor; there was just the right amount of black pepper, parsley and garlic. Their marinara is tasty and fresh, generously drenching the entire dish. And that meatball… again, perfect texture, light on bready fillings, heavy on ground meat and seasonings.
But I’d make the trip back to Carmella’s just for their homemade sausage. On first bite, the fennel seeds and other seasonings seemed a touch sweet. But then a spicy heat crept in to expertly achieve the perfect balance the flavors. I matched the rich flavors of my entrée with a glass of Chianti. The lasagna was so huge I drove home with a box of leftovers.
My friend ordered Prime Rib, a menu special that day. The inch-thick slab, medium rare as ordered, covered the oval platter and oozed juiciness. The outside had been garlic-rubbed for extra-rich flavor. It came with a bowl of ziti slathered in that fresh marinara sauce.
Strange, but as soon as Brandon started serving our meals, Carmella’s dining room began to look better and better. A good meatball can do wonders for your disposition. By the time we’d settled the bill and were on our way out I realized I’d happily drive twice as far for such delicious Italian cuisine.