Whatever the reason, Italian food and wine are natural partners in the minds of many diners. But what if you're a fan of Italian food who doesn't like wine, or - gasp - prefers whiskey or gin with dinner?
Luckily, Carmine's in the Quarter at Tropicana Casino Resort has you covered. The Atlantic City location of the national chain that offers simple fare typical of an Italian wedding feast also celebrates the marriage of food and Aperol or vermouth.
The Boardwalk location is thought to be the birthplace of the Cucumber Cooler. Made with Hendricks gin and cucumber limeade, the refreshing cocktail is so popular with Atlantic City customers, the cucumber-infused juice has to be constantly replenished to meet demand.
"Being in Atlantic City makes for a very beach-appropriate feel, like you're on the Boardwalk," says Erin Ward, Beverage Director for Carmine's. "Most of our cocktails are Old-World-Italian inspired, with a twist. Like the Sinatra Iced Tea; he was a big whiskey drinker, so it's like a cherry flavored whiskey sour."
The Chairman of the Boards' version is made with Rye 1 whiskey, Martini Bianco vermouth, maraschino cherry liqueur and a squeeze of lemon. The vermouth, is also found in Carmine's Negroni - Plymouth gin, Carpano Antica vermouth and Campari. It is even mixed into both the white and red sangrias. This is all Ward's doing.
The Montclair native went to culinary school in Vermont before living in California's Napa Valley "learning a lot about wine and food." She's traveled to Italy with the single mission of sourcing wines to pair with the cuisine at Carmine's. But really, it's the bitters that she's sweet on.
"I'm usually the one that orders stuff like Negroni and Aperol," she says, while speaking with authority on the differences in taste between various bitter liquors and aperitifs. "Carpano Antica makes the finest vermouth you can find in Italy. If you taste Campari and Aperol side by side, Campari is more assertive. The Negroni is super smooth because of the gin and vermouth in it."
Ward's favorite meal at Carmine's starts with the cold antipasto and a glass of Negroni. She says the bold flavor can stand up to the Porterhouse Contadina or Italian sausages with red peppers and onions. But then she will keep her pasta light, maybe angel hair with oil and garlic.
Valeri McLaughlin's tastes run in a slightly different direction. She pairs the Porterhouse Contadina with the crisp, clean-tasting Aperol fizz - with blood oranges, lemon, Prosecco and soda. The general manager of the Atlantic City restaurant, McLaughlin lives within walking distance of Tropicana and spends long hours at work, so she eats, and drinks, there often.
She is allergic to garlic, but says she still has various options while dining at Carmine's. She likes to pair the Cucumber Cooler with lemon butter chicken or shrimp fra diavolo. She also likes the chicken marsala, anything with a pomodoro sauce and clams or shrimp in red sauce.
Corey Herold is the wine steward at Carmine's, so he'll generally recommend you at least try a sherry like Pedro Ximenez or the sangria whenever it's not sold out.
The white version is cantaloupe and citrus flavored, with white vermouth, while the mixed-berry red combines Luxardo cherry liqueur with sweet Italian vermouth.
The sweet flavors complement the Ragu meat platter - sausage, meat balls and bracciole - but so does the Raspberry Artie Palmer, made with Wild Tea and Berri flavored Absolut vodka, Chambord and lemon juice. The drink was named for the restaurants founder, Artie Cutler.
"As the story goes, when they were tasting the food he just kept saying, 'Not enough garlic, it needs more,'" Herold says, acknowledging a key ingredient in many of the restaurant's dishes. "But that's why the menu is so great, there's really something for everybody," even people like McLaughlin, who can't eat garlic, or those adult fans of Italian food who don't drink wine.
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