Carrabba’s Italian Grill has been around since 1986, which is long enough that when it goes through a major refresh, it can easily be said that “This isn’t your parents’ Carrabba’s.” Examiner.com recently had the opportunity to spend some time with Carrabba’s executives at parent company Bloomin’ Brands (yes, the Outback folks) headquarters in Tampa, where there was quite a bit of conversation about some menu changes that had been a year in development, as well as some interesting surprises about the inner workings of the restaurant chain itself.

Would it be a shock to find out that Carrabba’s kitchens are entirely scratch kitchens? Everything but the pasta is made in-house from the sausage (still made daily by the proprietor at the original Houston locations) to the chicken stock for the soups (it takes a whole chicken to render a gallon), and it’s all backed up by the “muscle” of a corporate parent that demonstrates a clear love for the food it produces. After all, what other restaurant would have the means to go on a worldwide hunt for the utterly perfect varietal of fennel (earthy, and bright) for its sausage, or olive oil suited for both cooking and tasting (imported from Spain) to match their specific needs?

The menu itself also has a new look, with plenty of new items in addition to the small plates. Newer, shall we say Instagram-style shots of the plates such as Chianti Chicken, which comes under an arugula salad with apples, grapes, and toasted hazelnuts show off a lighter approach to Italian cuisine.

“We wanted to emphasize our grill, and our open kitchen which shows guests that we don’t have microwaves.” explains Katie Knight, Group Vice President and Carrabba’s CMO. “We even get guests who ask us to heat up a bottle for their infant in the microwave and we have to explain that we don’t have one.” Don’t fret, parents; servers will bring out a pan of warm water for bottle warming if needed. Restaurant interiors are also notably brighter and more contemporary – with a focus on a more sociable bar area.

The wood grill is certainly apparent with the menu – most of the proteins end up on the grill, from Chicken Marsala (wood-grilled chicken is atypical for this dish, but now it’s hard to imagine any other way) to the chain’s original Chicken Bryan, named for a town near the brand’s Houston-area birthplace. During Lent, there are some added seafood dishes for those eating more seafood – during the Tampa visit diners enjoyed Snapper Sapri, which is served tail-on, to emphasize freshness. “In Italy we’d be serving a whole fish, but American diners haven’t quite taken to that, so to emphasize freshness we thought still removing the heads but keeping the tails on would go over better,” Knight explains. The snapper is wonderful on the wood grill, to boot.

The new small plates are simply luscious. Bruschette Siciliani comes out in a sharable portion. Rich and tapenade-like with plenty of kalamata olives and herbs, it’s actually difficult to share. The same olive-forward earthiness is apparent in the Italian Lettuce Wraps, made with more of that smoky wood-grilled chicken and topped with ricotta-salata cheese (saltier and firmer than plain ricotta, good for grating in large flakes); good enough by themselves, but even better with a few (be gentle) drops of Calabrian pepper oil. Mozzarella Rustica is an updated take on mozzarella sticks – rather than plain cheese breaded and fried, it’s fashioned into herby breadcrumb balls reminiscent of hush puppies; their chunkiness is good for picking up the marinara. Meatballs with pomodoro with ricotta and romano cheese are light, yet satisfying (baked, not fried), and the famous fennel sausage makes for some memorable stuffed mushrooms.

Pasta is also a passion point, and Carrabba’s finds opportunity to innovate there as well. Pasta is boiled in bespoke pots with special bottoms that conduct more heat which boils water in less time using less energy, with specially-designed mesh strainers so that pasta is al dente every time. The equation is simple: a pound of pasta, a gallon of water, and an ounce of salt (two tablespoons) added after the water is already boiling so the bottom of the pot doesn’t pit. The result is a perfectly yielding, toothsome noodle big on flavor and bouncy in texture. Some 15 different kinds of pasta from Italy, Greece, and the United States are used.

Below are some of the new small plates; more details and menus can be found at carrabbas.com.

Transportation, meals, and accommodations were provided by Carrabba’s Italian Grill in preparation for this story.

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