A lush garden grows atop the roof of every Carrabba's restaurant. That's what I learned after inviting friends to join us for dinner at the new Carrabba's in Smithtown. A pal in the construction business was eager to see the chain's trademark architectural feature, something he had only read about in trade publications.

He had ample opportunity to scrutinize the carefully landscaped tract growing over the entryway, since the half-hour-to-40-minute wait our hostess had predicted stretched to more than an hour. Why, I wondered, do people wait so long to eat in a restaurant that's the clone of dozens nationwide?

Perhaps they enjoy learning Italian from a soundtrack in the restroom. Or getting instruction from their server in how to dip the restaurant's hot-from-the-oven bread into spiced olive oil. Be careful not to eat too much of that rather doughy loaf, since appetizers can take ages to come.

After waiting another 40 minutes, this time for our appetizers, we were pleasantly surprised by the cozze in bianco, plump Prince Edward Island mussels in a heady Pernod-enriched white wine butter sauce. On a previous visit, shrimp scampi had been overcooked and iodine-y. I thought the simple tomato and mozzarella-topped pizza had a good crunchy crust.

We waited again for soup and salad; a choice of one comes .gratis with most entrees. Lentil and sausage soup, a special, proved spicy, aromatic, delicious. Minestrone, while not at the same level, was rich and hearty. But the "Italian" salad -- lettuce, tomatoes, carrots and celery -- affronted an entire country. It took a crisp, vibrant, well-dressed Caesar, however, to restore the glory that was Rome.

If you judge an Italian-American restaurant by its spaghetti and meatballs, then Carrabba's gets points for its light, boldly spiced spheres. It scores again with rigatoni Martino, done with tender grilled chicken and vegetables in to.mato cream sauce sprinkled with ricotta salata and scallions. On one visit, I relished the subtly smoky grilled mahi mahi topped with a verdant herb puree. Both chicken and pork marsala featured juicy grilled meat in a winey mushroom sauce. But somebody was asleep at the grill when overcooking the already overorchestrated pollo Rosa Maria stuffed with fontina and prosciutto and topped with a too-tart lemon basil butter sauce.

Sogno di cioccolata, a rather cloying dessert, featured a fudge-y brownie topped with chocolate mousse, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Tiramisu is a lighter alternative.

Come early if you want to avoid the crowds. Keep in mind, too, that the restaurant has a call-ahead policy affording those who've phoned a prioritized place on the waiting list.

Mercifully, there's also a drive-up carryout service.

Reviewed by Joan Reminick, 10/29/04.

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