Haunted Houses have a simple business model - you’re there because you want to be scared. You give them money, and they give you nightmares for weeks. But if you walk into what looks like a blood-stained castle full of ghouls, and are greeted instead with a suburban basement full of Party City cobwebs, you’re going to be pretty disappointed.
Just like the thrilling goosebumps you get when walking into a haunted house, we got a similar feeling about Carrello. This Italian restaurant is run by the same team that operates Altura, a high-end, tasting-menu spot across the street, and they have a bunch of dim-sum style carts rolling around the restaurant carrying various antipasti (Carrello literally means “cart” in Italian). However, this overpromising and pricey pasta spot on Capitol Hill under-delivers, and didn’t give us the experience we were hoping for.
Most of the overpriced plates on the menu sadly miss the mark. The $13 fried potatoes don’t have nearly enough parmesan fonduta on top. The tagliatelle with cured tuna heart is extremely rich and boring simultaneously. On one of our visits, we got a $21 ravioli that barely had any crab and came topped with an excess of overly-smoky katsuobushi (fermented tuna flakes). The $59 lamb neck tastes completely void of seasoning. Eating here feels like walking into a haunted house to find people in regular clothing covered in white sheets, yelling “Boo!” in falsetto. You appreciate the effort, but it’s hard to not feel extremely underwhelmed.
The same could be said about the carts at Carrello - it’s one of the coolest things about the restaurant, but it also happens to be one of the worst things, too. Throughout your dinner, you’ll see a bunch of carts rolling around the dining room with various appetizers to choose from. Sure, it’s a bit of a novelty, but it sounds like something fun and different.
In reality, it’s incredibly stressful. Sometimes you’ll spend half of your meal eyeing one little dish of octopus at the table next to you, wondering where that cart is, and if it’ll ever get to you. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it does, but inconveniently swings by your table when you’re already full. You can flag down a server and order something that looked good, but that kind of defeats the purpose. It’s a shame because some of the restaurant’s best bites, like rabbit meatballs and spicy ’nduja spread on excellent homemade tomato focaccia, come from these carts. The whole experience is distracting, and causes anxiety and mood swings. Restaurants probably shouldn’t give you the same side effects as prescription medications.
Even though there are some good things on the menu, they just don’t make sense together. If you wanted to create a drinks-and-snacks situation from the cart’s greatest hits, you’d still have to wait around for those items without ordering anything else. Plus, some bread and a meatball isn’t dinner. And if you want to eat pasta, even some of the better ones on the menu have their flaws. The gnocchi with bolognese is tasty but too heavy, and the scarpinocc (tortellini that look like wrapped hard candies) with pumpkin and quince should be a bigger portion and needs more parmesan. By the end of your meal, it feels like everything could and should have been better.
There are a bunch of Italian restaurants on Capitol Hill where you can have a fantastic meal, and Carrello could have been another solid option in the neighborhood. But instead, it’s somewhere that will leave you feeling disappointed. We’ll be heading to Spinasse, Artusi, and Machiavelli for Italian instead. As for Carrello, we’ll see if they work out the kinks - hopefully it won’t be as difficult as detangling fake spiderwebs.
There’s very little rhyme or reason with the carts - they come along every once in a while, carrying teeny appetizers for you and your table to fight over. Deep breathing exercises help if you see the last plate of sopressata go to another table.
Rabbit & Pork Meatball: This is the best thing in the entire building, so you better hope a cart full of them roll on over to you. It’s a juicy meatball in a tomato-y jus, along with briny olives and fennel that cut through the pork’s richness.
Calamari & Bean Salad: This is really just calamari, white beans, some herbs, olive oil, and lemon. It sounds like it’d be light and tasty, but it’s undersalted and ends up being too bland.
’Nduja & Focaccia: Another appetizer’s greatness stifled by the fact that you might never see it during a meal here. Don’t let that happen - hunt this tomato focaccia down. It comes with a very delicious spreadable ’nduja that has the perfect amount of salt and spice.
Spicy Grilled Octopus: Both the spicy grilled octopus and chickpea puree are good, not great. And the portion is so tiny that it’s hard to share.
Gnocco Fritto: There’s something about these triangles of fried dough that remind us of stale crackers. You desperately want them to be crunchy or soft, but they are somehow neither.
This half-baguette is crusty and toasted on the outside, and soft and fluffy in the middle. The anchovy-infused bagna cauda that comes on the side tastes like a highly-concentrated caesar dressing. The whole plate makes us want to come here and just eat bread.
The first time we ate here, we couldn’t shut up about these crispy potatoes covered in outrageously-good parmesan fonduta and fried herbs. But each time after our first visit, we noticed that Carrello might be experiencing a fonduta drought - you now only get about a tablespoon of it. Without an abundance of liquid cheese, the potatoes end up being an oily ramekin full of $13 home fries.
Cured tuna heart has a very rich flavor. In turn, the tagliatelle becomes this cured tuna heart’s b*tch. Proceed only if you really like tuna heart.
Overall, this pasta won’t make you sad, but the gnocchi is on the heavier side. And the delicious lamb and beef bolognese don’t stick well to the gnocchi.
If you’ve never had tripe before, here’s a good place to try it: in a spicy ragu with anchovy breadcrumbs and tender braised oxtail. The problem is, there isn’t a ton of oxtail to go around, and we don’t really taste the anchovies.
These pasta pillows are filled with pumpkin and tossed in a quince sauce with hazelnuts, amaretti crumbs, and parmesan shavings. It’s by far the best pasta here, but you only get a handful of them for $17.
This is a fine carbonara, with super flavorful guanciale. But we can find much better, bigger, and cheaper versions in the city.
We’ll start by saying that the fried eggplant cubes that come with this dish on the side are great. But that’s not what we’re paying $59 for, which is a giant roasted lamb neck with tough, underseasoned meat.