I added a quick 24 hours in DC onto my Memorial Day trip to Baltimore mainly to see my aunt and uncle (but also to enjoy some of DC’s sights). We made plans to grab dinner Friday night and I of course scoped out the gluten-free options. I did some pretty extensive research into the gluten-free options in DC and Baltimore (blogs, Yelp, gluten-free registries/lists). I think out of interest, but also out of convenience (as it was across the street from my hotel), Carmine’s in Penn Quarter seemed like the way to go for dinner with my aunt and uncle.
I debated whether to write this post or not, but decided to go ahead and do it. Carmine’s has some caveats to keep in mind when deciding whether to visit. Carmine’s is an upscale Italian chain (locations in New York, Atlantic City, Vegas, and the Bahamas as well) and its angle is family-style dining. It was a pretty popular place and luckily we made reservations, otherwise the wait would have been 45 minutes to an hour.
There are a couple things about Carmine’s that is probably done to make it seem more authentic and real, but in reality make the experience a bit “interesting.” One was that they don’t give you any menus, but instead the menu is posted on relatively big placards on the walls. I wouldn’t be surprised to find this in an authentic old-school Italian restaurant, but again in practice it fell a bit short. Luckily there was one menu high behind our table, otherwise we all would have had difficulty ordering without walking to get closer to a menu. There were definitely tables that were a good distance from the nearest menu (especially when you add in darker lighting). Even with it relatively close I found myself straining to make sure I wasn’t missing anything, I lost my place once or twice, and it was hard menu to scan back and forth to settle on an option. My uncle even just stood up to try and read it from a better vantage point. I get the idea (especially since it’s family style eating), but regular menus would have made it much much easier.
Family-style eating can make Carmine’s a really great value (probably also makes it seem more authentic). We quickly kind of realized though that a group with dietary restrictions might have an issue of needing to align on what to get. We had myself (celiac) and my aunt (pescatarian). We settled on a gluten-free broccoli and sausage pasta with red sauce and then either the clam sauce or mixed seafood on regular pasta I think (sometimes have a bad tendency to totally forget things that don’t directly impact me). These two took care of me and my aunt and then my uncle could do both of them.
They are not lying when they talk about generous portions and “family-style.” These plates are big! The pasta was good for gluten-free. It was done slightly al dente and covered in a good amount of sauce you can’t really tell too much that it’s gluten-free texture or taste. I would have liked more sausage though. It just didn’t have much of presence in the dish. My uncle didn’t comment at all on the gluten-free pasta being noticeably different or anything (a good sign) and him and my aunt enjoyed their regular pasta dish. There were tons (I repeat tons) of leftovers. I took the rest of the gluten-free pasta “home” (as in back to my hotel), but I was stuffed for the rest of the night and my hotel room didn’t have a refrigerator or microwave. Unfortunately the leftovers were “left” in my hotel room garbage the next morning…
Carmine’s comes with some caveats (not necessarily issues though) and you just need to have the right expectations going in. The family style dining is the big thing about it. If you have a variety of tastes (or allergies) to satisfy then this might not be the place to go. We would have been totally okay sharing one pasta dish between the three of us (and still would probably have had leftovers). Looking back we maybe could have figured out one dish to satisfy all, but we did have some diverse tastes and needs. Go with a big group and go with the understanding that you’ll need to find just one or two dishes (if you have I’d say five or more people) for everyone. If you’re the only gluten-free and can’t get others in the group to share, it would be an expensive visit (but not excessively so) with lots of extra food. It is nice though that they offer gluten-free pasta (plus give instructions online on how to do something dairy-free or garlic-free). I also would be careful to visit if you’re a tourist and your hotel room doesn’t have a fridge/microwave, at least if you’re unsure if your group will eat all the food at the restaurant (and if you hate to waste leftovers). Bottom line is to think carefully through if this is the best place to go for you/your group. For some groups (keyword: groups) it might be perfect and others not so much.
Carmine’s- 425 7th Street NW Washington D.C. 20004