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Carmela's of Brooklyn

CrustinoIt’s been almost exactly six years since my initial review of Carmela’s of Brooklyn was published on April 3, 2005. It was a positive review. I made mention of the good service, the fun (if stereotypical) decor and, most notably, the food, especially the pizza, which I noted was one of the closest renditions of an authentic New York style pie as you’re likely to find in Florida.

But I had the niggling feeling -- one I didn’t mention in my review -- that Carmela’s wouldn’t be able to sustain the high quality. And the reason was that it was backed by a large national company and was poised to be rolled out as a chain. The Longwood restaurant was merely the prototype, despite the claims on the marquee that the restaurant was established in 1959 (it was a reference to the first Carmela’s, which, like the sign says, was in Brooklyn).

But now, six years later, there are exactly two Carmela’s of Brooklyn: the original, still in Longwood Village Shoppes on State Road 434, and one on Kirkman Road in Orlando. And any concerns I had about Carmela’s losing its soul to a corporate overlord evaporated when I visited the Carmela’s of Brooklyn (of Longwood) recently. The food is still first-rate and the servers were delightful.

The reason, said Salvatore Grassano, the managing partner, is that Sbarro, the parent company, told him when he opened the restaurant in 2005 to treat it as though it were his own. So Grassano, who was born in Naples, Italy, and raised in Chicago, imbued the restaurant with the flavors -- both the kind you taste and the intangible type, as well -- of the Italy he knows. It all comes through in a wonderful -- and, I should mention, ridiculously low-priced -- meal.

Now, as I mentioned, Carmela’s pizza impressed me when I first reviewed the restaurant. And I had a sample recently that showed me they still get it. I didn’t have an actual pizza, I had a crustino, a pizzalike device that features the same crust served with the Grandma Pizza, not too thick and not too thin, brushed with olive oil, and with simple toppings of mozzarella cheese, slices of sweet and delightfully red tomatoes and a sprig of basil. When it was served to me, I promised myself I would have only one or two bites. But one or two bites was all that was left when I finally stopped. Delicious.

For my entree, I had eggplant parmigiana, a dish that rarely attracts my attention, but one I sometimes order wheneggplant_parm I’m in a meatless mood. I can’t remember an eggplant parmigiana as satisfying as this one. To begin with, it was comprised of several layers of thinly sliced eggplant that formed a sort of vegetable version of a mille fueille. And instead of breading the eggplant, as so many restaurant do, Carmela’s uses a simple eggwash on the slices, which helps keep it light. Well, relatively light, seeing as it also has melted mozzarella and pulpy pomodoro sauce with just a tinge of garlic. The dish was garnished with a tasty leaf of flash-fried basil.

For dessert, I couldn’t resist the cannoli. Here’s where I saw the biggest change from the Carmela’s I visited six years ago. It wasn’t that the cannoli lacked the same crispy shell and lusciously thick and creamy ricotta filling. It was every bit as good as the first time. The difference was that in 2005 the dessert was offered for $1. Now they’re two for $2.99. At a time when many restaurants are asking $8 or $9 for a dessert, it’s still a bargain. So is most of the menu, with some entrees as low as $8.99.

There has been a change in the decor, too. Gone are the plastic checkered table covers. Instead, just the dark wood tops, although the patio tables have tasteful white or black cloths. But the pizza station is still just behind the host stand, and the sound system still plays the standards of the Italian crooners. Ah, that’s amore.

Carmela’s of Brooklyn is at 1819 W. State Road 434, Longwood, 407-331-6300; and 5320 S. Kirkman Road, Orlando, 407-351-6150. Both locations are open for lunch and dinner daily. Here’s a link to the Carmela’s of Brooklyn website.

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