Carbonella Creations splits the old Conway's Red Top building with a used-car dealership surrounded in barbed wire. A single plastic picnic table sits ruefully out front. Take-out, clearly, is the order of the day.
But come in, and you'll be back tomorrow — the food is that good.
It has been a long time since I was as excited to take another bite as when I first sampled Carbonella Creations' arrabbiata. The spicy Italian sauce mixes fresh tomato brightness with red pepper flake zing for a warming-not-scorching bite. Mine came over bucatini — think thick spaghetti with a hole through the center, fresh-made that day — topped with salty Pecorino-Romano.
I'm a sucker for a good plate of pasta, and this was a damned good plate of pasta.
And exemplary of this restaurant's customer service, co-owner/co-chef Molly Hamlin had ensured every facet of my order was to taste. Would I like the fresh bucatini or the fresh tortiglioni? Would I prefer Parmesan or Pecorino Romano? Olives on the salad? How hot would I like the sauce? Which bruschetta topping?
On a second visit, Hamlin offered me a cup of strong Italian coffee while I waited — not on the menu, though she says she'd like to change that — and a succulent piece of zucchini bread with goji berries, blueberries and raisins, glazed with honeydew marmalade. Co-chef Enrico Romagnoli even offered me the spongy and delicious Parmesan rind steeped in the sauce for my polpette di Nonna Vincenza.
Nonna Vincenza, Romagnoli's grandma, had a good idea. Her dish features an all-beef meatball, soft throughout with a powerfully earthy meatiness. The accompanying sauce adds a nice depth of flavor to the beef and a world of pleasure to the rapidly dissolving bread on which the meatballs rest under cheese.
Carbonella plates are all modestly sized, as compared with the family-sized pasta bowls of chain Italian joints. They hover around $11, with daily specials offered — for instance, a pork chop, applewood-smoked using Hamlin's much-loved Big Green Egg (carbonella means "charcoal" in Italian), and stuffed with a house-made marmalade of prunes, rye whiskey and almonds. Juicy and tender, it sported lovely char lines and a mild sweetness, balanced by the salty-sour lemon and caper bruschetta topping. Pepper Jack added a little salt and not much else, but that sweet filling made for a gratifying mouthful.
Unfortunately, the green salad included with all meat dishes seemed to serve little purpose beyond carrying a bite of vinaigrette. Though the pork chop killed, between the salad dressing and the bruschetta toppings, enough oil remained in the carton for Turkish wrestling — or at least another round of that pasta.
As the most expensive item on the menu at $14, Nonna's eight-hour ragu recipe underwhelmed both in portion and in polish. Each bite broke down a little differently, sometimes perfectly balanced with a burst of fennel, sometimes underwhelming and desperate for more Pecorino Romano, and sometimes with the welcome crunch of a whole, softened peppercorn — the essence of warts-and-all home cooking.
But the flaws at Carbonella are peripheral; the heart of the menu beats for grilled meats and pasta, and that heart beats strong. Consider this your new baseline for good Italian food.