Italian food is Long Island’s most popular. Almost every community has a favorite spot, serving pizzas to pastas to Parmigianas and much more, north to south, east to west. It’s a cuisine unchained.
Well, maybe not.
While chain restaurants have grown in Nassau and Suffolk over the years, few specializing in Italian food have ventured into this highly competitive territory.
To see how some of the major Italian-oriented chains compare, Newsday’s food staff visited and ate through the menus. Here’s a report from the field on five of them.
Since the first Bertucci’s opened in 1981, the Massachusetts-based chain (now with 86 restaurants nationwide) has been highlighting the wood-burning brick oven. At Long Island’s two locations in Melville (881 Walt Whitman Rd., pictured) and Hauppauge (358 Vanderbilt Motor Pkwy.), the brick-oven selections are still the way to go. More info: bertuccis.com
Tuscan chicken wings
Among the many starters and sides that issue from the brick oven, the wings are a standout, tender and tangy and flavored with lemon, rosemary and an inimitable hint of wood smoke.
Bertucci’s pizzas feature a fine, chewy, well-developed crust, bright tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. There are about a dozen pies to choose from -- plus the opportunity to craft your own -- but you won’t do better than the simple, classic Margherita, which lets the quality of the crust shine through. The kitchen has a tendency to undercook the pies so, if you want yours nicely browned, ask for it on the well-done side.
No wood smoke here, but this crowd-pleasing pasta combines three appealing elements -- shrimp, cream and spaghetti -- into a super-appealing dish. The cream is lightly pinked with tomato and heightened with salty capers and a pinch of hot pepper. It may come overdressed, which means you’ll have to sop up the leftover sauce with Bertucci’s good dinner rolls.
Carrabba's Italian Grill
The Florida-based chain, now 244 locations strong, was founded in 1986 when John Charles “Johnny” Carrabba III and his uncle Damian Mandola opened their first restaurant in Houston. As befits its Texas roots, Carrabba’s menu features a handful of steaks and chops in addition to the Italian items. Long Island locations are in Smithtown (730 Smithtown Bypass, pictured) and Central Islip (20 N. Research Place). More info: carrabbas.com
Parmesan-Crusted Chicken Arugula
These chicken cutlets are dredged in cheese and breadcrumbs before being fried crisp, juicy and brown. They’re served with fresh arugula, tomatoes and shaved cheese and tossed with lemon vinaigrette. The garlic mashed potatoes are a tasty side — but they are served in school-cafeteria-style scoops. Consider pasta instead.
What could be bad? Carrabba’s takes well-cooked, well-sauced fettuccine Alfredo and adds mushrooms, peas and pieces of moist grilled chicken breast.
Sogno di cioccolata
This double-decker “dream of chocolate” starts with a dense, fudgy brownie topped first with chocolate mousse and then with fresh whipped cream, and then repeats the procedure. The final fillip, a crisscross of chocolate drizzle, may be gilding the lily -- but that’s not always a bad thing, especially where chocolate is concerned.
Brio Tuscan Grille
There are more than 60 branches of Brio nationwide. So far, the Ohio-based company’s lone New York unit is in Huntington Station (160 Walt Whitman Rd.). That compares with 14 in Florida and six in Texas. The style is meant to suggest a country villa. The design is eye-catching, the staff friendly and the service very good. The local menu covers generally familiar territory for brunch, lunch and dinner. More info: brioitalian.com
A quartet of savory bruschetti -- roasted red pepper and mozzarella; apple-wood bacon and tomato jam; sliced steak with Gorgonzola; and a seasonal one, currently Cajun shrimp -- prettily presented.
Lasagna Bolognese al forno
This hefty, tasty dish sports a Bolognese-style meat sauce, creamy sauce Alfredo, ricotta and mozzarella. It works surprisingly well and compares favorably with the lasagna served at your local, casual Italian spot.
Bistecca alla Fiorentina
It’s not the classic, thick T-bone, seared, salted, sliced, drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and served very rare. But the fine 14-ounce strip steak is cooked to order, tender and satisfying. For $1.50, you can add a Gorgonzola-cheese crust. Resist.
For a food-snob-free environment, your best bet for a sit-down restaurant is the Olive Garden, a fair host to big families, sports teams and teenagers on dates. Florida-based Darden Restaurants Inc., also the parent company of Red Lobster, operates more than 800 locations around the world. With so many in the region, it’s likely that an Olive Garden isn’t too far from your own dining room table, a reason why takeout is nearly as popular as dining in — except when it comes to breadsticks, which taste better served warm. Long Island locations are in Massapequa ( 5598 Sunrise Hwy.), Centereach ( 257 Centereach Mall), Bay Shore (1715 Sunrise Hwy.,), Valley Stream (610 W. Sunrise Hwy., pictured) and Westbury (1246 Old Country Rd.). More info: olivegarden.com
Dine-in only, unlimited soup, salad and breadsticks
For a never-ending parade of blonde, pillowy bread batons, this is the Olive Garden order for you. They’re served with a house salad like an Italian grandmother would make, along with soup such as pasta fagioli or minestrone. Use breadsticks for dipping.
Round and near palm-sized, each one is stuffed with a blend of cheeses, then drizzled with marinara or meat sauce. It’s an Olive Garden dish to satisfy the vegetarian or the meat lover that’s hard to screw up.
If Guy Fieri were a regular at Olive Garden, this slab of lasagna would be his order: it is many layers tall with little restraint. Three cheeses team up between sheets of pasta ladeled with sauce. It’s a dish that’s not for the timid.
Maggiano's Little Italy
The only location on Long Island, Maggiano’s Little Italy opened in Garden City (Roosevelt Field, 600 Garden City Plaza) in December with a menu of flatbreads, straight-ahead and specialty pastas, and high-octane or lighter takes on Italian-American classics. Founded in Chicago with headquarters in Dallas and fewer than 100 locations, Maggiano’s also offers three-course, family-style meals for groups of four or more, with choices among salads, appetizers, pastas, signature cuts and desserts. As for the digs, think old-school, red-sauce restaurant, with honeycomb-tile floors, deep red banquettes and checkered tablecloths — minus the decorative Chianti bottle in a wicker holder. More info: maggianos.com
Italian sausage flatbread
Look for the plank that displays this flat, crisp pizza, a generous serving with a sheath of toppings at Maggiano's. The balanced pie is a satiating starter, with tomato sauce, a smattering of mozzarella, the crumblings of sweet Italian sausage and ribbons of cut basil.
This breaded chicken breast at Maggiano's wears a sauce so flavorful the meat is beside the point. It starts with white wine and stock, adds lemon and butter and spikes the dish with capers, and it’s served with a side of pasta. There’s also a lighter variation that’s half the calories.
Mini dessert sampler
The mini dessert sampler at Maggiano's is not so small, as individual portions align a giant plate, from tiramisu, to crème brûlée, apple crostata, cheesecake, and Gigi’s butter cake (named for the company’s director of operations) served over mascarpone and honey. Prepare for leftovers or consider this as dessert-for-dinner.