By Frank Sabatini Jr.
The closest I normally come to eating steak at an Italian restaurant is when I order meatballs. Rarely do you find rib-eye, filet mignon and other coveted cuts on their menus. Though when you do, they’re often overshadowed by pizza, pasta and seafood.
Carne Prima Italian Steakhouse is much different. There are no pizzas. And despite a tempting selection of pasta dishes and the inclusion of fresh oysters and a few fish entrees, prime beef rules the day.
The restaurant opened in July and falls squarely into the league of fine dining. Its classic interior greets with white tablecloths, cushy seating and showy crystal chandeliers, which Executive Chef Aliano Decka said took four days to assemble when they arrived from Italy.
Near the front of the dining room is a glass-enclosed wine collection flaunting some of the rarest, priciest bottles in the Gaslamp Quarter.
When I asked for a brief tour of the temperature-controlled room, the maitre d’ gingerly pulled from the rack a 1981 Domaine Armand Rousseau burgundy priced at $8,000.
He proceeded to show me various Super Tuscans, Brunellos and others that were less expensive, but still exclusive enough to worry about making a clumsy move when viewing them in such close proximity.
We stuck to the glass list, which offers several dry, meat-friendly choices under $15 — Joseph Faiveley pinot noir from France, a Super Tuscan by Mazzei, some California cabernets, and others in the white category as well that evade the mass market.
Our lead up to a wet-aged tomahawk steak for two began with the “grand tagliere,” a board brimming with various salumi, at least five types of imported cheeses, blackberries and fig jam. Magnifico.
So was the table bread served with a trio of dips: olive oil and balsamic, and two of them mixing pesto and garlic with ricotta cheese.
Chef Decka, a native of Rome who previously headed kitchens in London, Manhattan, Tampa and a few other cities, puts a unique spin on caprese. The tomatoes are encased in crispy polenta batter and stacked with alternate layers of buffalo mozzarella and basil leaves.
Our only complaint was that the tomatoes were of the anemic, winter ilk. Skipping over Kumamoto oysters, king crab legs and ahi tartare from the crudo section, we dove straight into the menu’s beefy soul, which offers everything from prized Akaushi rib eye and center-cut New York strip to aged T-bone and porterhouse.
The grilled tomahawk is an off-menu item weighing in at 45 ounces with the bone, and about 30 ounces without. It’s sliced tableside, usually by Decka, who engraves the restaurant’s name into the bone unless you request something customized such as “happy birthday” or “will you marry me?” (Who’s going to say “no” when receiving a proposal on a hunk of meat so big and bold-tasting?)
Cooked medium-well as requested, the tender meat graduated in doneness from crispy ends to pinkish flesh in the center. Every speck of it, including the fat, was richly flavored without any doctoring from salt and pepper. As expected, it yielded leftovers for lunch the following day.
From a choice of sauces, we chose bordelaise, an admixture of butter, herbs, red wine and beef stock rich in bone marrow. I spooned it mostly onto our garlic-kissed mashed potatoes since the steak was loaded with its own natural juices.
Usually in high-end steakhouses, such sidekicks suffer because they’re made ahead in bulk quantities. These didn’t.
The lobster gnocchi we also ordered was equally pleasing, interspersed with chunks of tail meat and draped in bisque-like lobster sauce that was heavy, but worth the high intake of calories.
The gnocchi compensated for our incapacity to try any of the regular pasta dishes, which include lasagna with béchamel sauce, pappardelle with dry-aged beef Bolognese, spaghetti alla Carbonara and several others.
Gnocchi reappeared (in concept) for dessert. They’re constructed with dark chocolate instead of eggs, flour and potatoes, and rolled in quinoa and minced walnuts. Topped with candied orange and lemon zest, the puddle of silky crème anglaise beneath resulted in pure decadence. I favored this dessert over the tiramisu, which was more liquidy than firm.
Downtown is saturated with Italian restaurants, many of them very good. Although only at Carne Prima will hardcore carnivores find a veritable alternative to the high-end steakhouses, and with an army of well-dressed waiters — some with charming accents — guiding you to a favorite cut of meat and bottle of deluxe wine.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.