Restaurant review: Carmella’s

Will Doreza

Carmella’s is a small and somewhat hidden bistro located in a strip mall across from the Fox River Mall. It is owned by the DeFranza family, and is dedicated to the Italian cooking of their grandma Carmella.

However, the restaurant’s reputation is hardly obscure, as it has won the 2011 Best Overall Restaurant by Fox Cities Magazine, and is frequently overloaded with eager diners. Based on my recent visit, Carmella’s not only lives up to its reputation as Appleton’s finest restaurant, but also provided the best Italian food I’ve had anywhere.

Most of us are familiar with standard Italian cuisine, and I’m not talking about delivery pizza or the despicable lasagna in Andrews Commons. Carmella’s menu exudes authenticity, and although I haven’t had the privilege of dining in Italy, this restaurant is probably the closest I’ve come.

The service is excellent — the servers know each dish well and provide helpful recommendations. An almost absurd amount of attention is devoted to filling water glasses.

The food is best described as rich and hearty with bold and unapologetic flavors, while still retaining the finesse and balance of gourmet dining. The dishes are presented in a way that is elegant in a non-intimidating way, which is matched by the restaurant’s somewhat casual and relaxed atmosphere — no white tablecloths or dress code here.

My guests and I ordered from the “antipasti,” or appetizer, section of the menu first, selecting seared sea scallops, with crispy pancetta—Italian cured bacon— lemon butter and wilted spinach. While the scallops might have been slightly overdone, the whole dish — spinach included — was refreshing, appetizing and rustic.

In addition, we ordered the fried mozzarella for my little sister, who has far less adventurous taste. Instead of the disguised mozzarella sticks that I had expected, the dish was actually very impressive — soft cheese in perfectly light and crispy breading served with a rich tomato sauce underneath.

One of the more popular main courses served at Carmella’s is the saltimbocca chicken, which is served under a layer of melted fontina cheese and prosciutto, with a marsala sauce, wilted spinach and other vegetables. The saltiness of the prosciutto ham and fontina cheese made for a bold and satisfying dish.

The vegetables, including green beans, were perfectly cooked and heavily seasoned as well, but the roasted potatoes were definitely undercooked, and almost still crispy in the middle.

The highlight of the meal, however, was the extra side I ordered — a wild mushroom risotto. If you haven’t tried risotto, it’s essentially the best sort of Italian comfort food — a creamy and rich rice dish that takes a lot of manual labor to prepare.

For dessert, I ordered a special hazelnut chocolate cupcake with a chocolate butter cream frosting. It was a perfect finish to a great meal — rich chocolate in the lightness of an expertly-baked cupcake.

Be sure to call ahead the day you want to dine at Carmella’s — they don’t take reservations, but allow you to call in advance the day-of to shorten your wait time. Because the restaurant is small, it fills up quickly.

Carmella’s is not absurdly expensive like other restaurants I’ve reviewed. The main courses are on average $15 and don’t exceed $24, but everything is á la carte. In order to get the full taste of Carmella’s, it’s best to order at least two other courses in addition to a main course.

Because of its casual atmosphere, fine authentic Italian food and moderate pricing, this is probably the best restaurant you should bring your family to. It’s not popular among Lawrence students because of its distance, but is certainly a place to check out — especially if your family is buying you something over by the mall anyway.