My philosophy of cuisine is as elegant as it is simple: “if you can’t do prepare something the right way, don’t bother preparing it at all.” Few eateries share this philosophy, which can make fine dining a fairly perilous experience for the unsuspecting or undiscerning. Your local hole-in-the-wall pizza joint serves wings, but that doesn’t mean your local hole-in-the-wall pizza joint serves edible wings, let alone sumptuous wings available in a kaleidoscopic range of flavors. Any hack can dip some raw wings in dime hot sauce, char those suckers in an oven, slam the mess into a foam container, move the order out the door and call in a day, but deep-fryer élan and artistry are necessary to emerge with wings that will have your average punter panting for water and begging for an extra helping of suicide sauce.
Calamari is no different; there are exponentially more pretenders to the squid throne than worthy heirs. If you own a television set, you’re already acquainted with the worthy heirs: Olive Garden, Romano’s Macaroni Grill, Red Lobster, your friendly neighborhood Italian class joint. If we’re being real, though, the quality of the calamari these chains serve is only a few notches above your average Shoney’s. For the best, there is no competition: Carrabba’s is the calamari kingdom of Heaven, hands down.
We might argue the side sauces—classic marinara versus the exotic tang of “spicy Italian pepper and lemon butter sauce”—but in truth, those are peripheral to the rich festival that rages on the palette with each bite of perfectly fried, exquisitely seasoned calamari. It occupies that hallowed space between health-hazard undercooked and burnt-to-rubber, a vast, crispy plate of petrified tentacles and whatever aspect of a squid winds up looking like a pliable, warped wedding band when deep-fried to a mouth-watering golden brown. (Most places, you’ll observe, don’t even serve tentacle calamari; accept no substitutes.) One does not wolf down a plate of Carrabba’s calamari; one savors it, gradually, considering the symphony of textures and flavors at play, and in so doing one begins to regard life a bit more contemplatively, at an angle: everything slows down to a tortoise speed. Why? Because meals don’t get much better than this, and how often do you get to enjoy fine dining, a nice glass of wine, old world ambiance, dead squids partying down all over your taste buds in an angel-dusted frenzy of spices as brass-band bold and righteously insidious, in its own way, as a knock-out punch to the jaw?