The typical sides dishes served at Carrabba’s Italian Grill are vegetable of the day (who really wants steamed broccoli?), garlic mashed potatoes, and Cavatappi Amatriciana. Carrabba’s claims the latter is one of it’s most popular side dishes and recommends it to accompany the grilled dishes. I’ve had it, and I’d recommend it, most of the time, over the “vegetable of the day” or the garlic mashed potatoes, which I’ve never been a fan of, being that they are pasty and heavy.
In other words, when it comes to side dishes, Carrabba’s isn’t exactly knocking it out of the park, in my book, but, Cavatappi Amatriciana makes up for what the mash is lacking (plus, I just had a very nice dinner there yesterday, and a couple of great Italian beers). They say it’s their most popular side dish, but, what is it? There is no explanation given anywhere on the menu, that I’ve found.
If you guessed, logically, that it is a pasta dish; you’re correct. You may even have already known that cavatappi is a type of pasta. Cavatappi is a sort of curly corkscrew macaroni. Think of it as elbow macaroni with a double elbow, or even better, with a corkscrew shape. It is similar to fusili and tends to have vertical groves on the outside. Other names for it are cellentani, amori, spirali, tortiglioni, or fusilli rigati. It is also sometimes called serpentini, trivelle, stortelli, spirali, or amori. The word cavatappi comes from two Italian words cava and tappi, meaning “tap extractor. ”
Amatriciana is a very famous pasta sauce from central Italy. It was born in the mountains between Rome and Abruzzo, and is named after the town of Amatrice. It features tomato, onion, pancetta, and Romano cheese, and in Amatrice is served with bucatini pasta and called Bucatini All’ Amatriciana. Instead of olive oil, like you might find in a Southern Italian dish, it uses butter. Carraba’s starts with sauteing the pancetta in butter until it is lightly browned, then goes in the onion, which is cooked until it begins to caramelize. Then they stir in whole crushed canned tomatoes and their juice, with some pepper flakes. The whole thing is simmered until it reduces down and thickened. Then some more butter is added and salt to taste. The pasta is cooked until al dente and then tossed with the sauce and some Romano cheese. If it all sounds good, that’s because it is. If you’ve had it and would like to duplicate it at home, I offer a recipe with a slight twist that brings it up a notch, by sauteing some of the tomatoes with the pancetta and onions, deepening their flavor and almost browning them.
Cavatappi Amatriciana Recipe
For the cavatappi, I’d recommend De Cecco. Or look for Barilli Cellentani, or another pasta brand using one of the names given above. You can use, instead of the cavatappi, buccatanni (more authentic), rigatoni, penne, or conchiglie (little shells). Make sure to cook the pasta until just a bit underdone, so that it finishes cooking in the sauce. While tossing in the sauce, if you need more liquid, use some of the pasta water, reserved in advance. This recipe uses butter and olive oil, instead of just butter.
3 tbs butter
1 tbs olive oil
4 ounces (about 8 thin slices) pancetta, finely diced (1/2 inch pieces)
1 yellow onion, chopped finely
1 can whole plum tomatoes in their juice, or other good canned tomatoes crushed (see further instructions below)
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
salt to taste
1 pound pasta of choice
5 tbs grated Romano cheese
Remove half the tomatoes from the can and squeeze out the seeds and as much of the juice as you can, back into the can. Crush the rest of the tomatoes and leave them with the juice, for later. Meanwhile, boil 6 quarts of salted water for the pasta.
In a large saucepan or skillet, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter along with the olive oil over medium heat. Add the pancetta and cook until browned lightly, stirring occasionally, about 3 minutes or so. Remove the pancetta and set aside. Add the onion to the pan and saute unit the onions are a pale gold color. And back in the pancetta and the tomatoes that you squeezed and crushed, along with the chili pepper flakes. Turn the heat up to high and saute the tomatoes with the pancetta and onions, stirring often, until the mixture is thick and most of the moisture is cooked away. The tomatoes should almost start to brown and the sauce will be very rich.
Now, add in the rest of the tomatoes and their juice, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook for 20 to 25 minutes until the juices have thickened. Meanwhile, cook one pound pasta in the boiling water, until just al dente, and a bit undercooked. Add the remaining butter to the sauce and stir in, then taste for seasoning. Add salt if needed. Drain the pasta (when possible, remove your pasta from the water rather than pouring through a colander), retaining some or all of the pasta water. Toss the drained pasta into the sauce, stirring around to thoroughly coat the pasta and finish cooking it. If the pasta sauce becomes too thick and dry, add a bit of the pasta water. This gives the pasta a bit more moisture to absorb, when needed. when the pasta is a perfect al dente consistency, add the cheese and toss or stir it in. Serve immediately, with more cheese on the side.
Carrabba’s Italian Grill CopyCat Recipes
Although I’ve modified the recipe given here based on ideas from other Italian cook books, the principle source for the basic overview of how Carrabba’s makes the dish is not some copycat recipe site, but the Carrabba’s cookbook. Or, more specifically Carrabba’s Italian Grill: Recipes from Around Our Family Table. Although you are not going to find every single dish that is currently offered at Carrabba’s in the book, you’ll get accurate instructions for many of the classics, so they are not exactly a state secret. Before you rely on a copycat recipe from a website, which are hit-and-miss, at best, I’d advise you check the book.
Now, although it may not say it on the menu, you can actually get all sorts of pasta side dishes at Carrabba’s. Just ask your waiter.
Not every restaurant puts out its own cookbook, of course, but here’s a list of famous restaurants with cookbooks.
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