On a quiet corner of 22th and Spruce sits a small, charming, and un–intimidating restaurant. Green and white striped awnings welcome you in to an intimate, laid–back dining room with an exposed kitchen. The white–tiled walls, metal chairs, paper–lined wooden tables, and beachy playlist lend a casual, fun vibe.
As our black and jean–clad maitre d' showed my friend and I to our table, I was expecting casual, run–of–the–mill Italian food; simple salad and a pasta. I ended up having a delicious five–course meal that left me smiling all the way back to Penn’s campus.
We started off with the heirloom panzanella salad with parmesan cheese. The tomatoes tasted fresh off the vine, contrasting beautifully with the crunchy focaccia croutons and bitter cheese.
There are many directions to take with the appetizers. The arugula and fennel salad doused in lemon herb dressing was light and refreshing, perfect for a 90–degree August evening. For a heartier option, try the summer squash and beans. The warm, grilled veggies are dressed with pecorino cheese and sprinkled with breadcrumbs, making it a treat to eat your greens.
Like real Italians, we incorporated a pasta course between our appetizers and entrees. All the pastas carry a delicious homemade quality. We sampled the gemelli alla zucca, which was cooked perfectly al dente. The zucchini pesto was creamy, but not too heavy. We also tried a vegetarian version of the shells granchio arrabbiato substituting the spicy crab out for mushrooms, veggies, and cheese. The soft shells were folded around cheesy sauce and soft veggies, making for the perfect bite.
For our entree, I ordered the grilled branzino with eggplant, capers, and pepperonata. The capers were a little salty, but the eggplant was soft and delicious, especially when paired with the crispy skin of the branzino. The peperonata added a pleasantly surprising kick of spice. My friend ordered the chicken milanese, topped with lettuce, cheese, and mushrooms. She loved that the chicken was breaded and fried, but still juicy.
“We’re not going to let you leave without trying dessert,” our server told us; he hadn’t steered us wrong the entire night. He brought out an olive oil cake with strawberries and lemon curd, complemented by vanilla and chocolate hazelnut gelatos. The olive oil cake was dense, but a spoonful of vanilla gelato added balance. The chocolate hazelnut gelato tasted like Nutella on steroids. Even if you feel stuffed, don’t leave before dessert.
At Trattoria Carina, the menu changes seasonally, guaranteeing the freshest ingredients in their dishes. With their abundance of vegetable and protein options, it is possible to order a healthy meal... but I think skipping out on the bread basket, pasta, and gelato would be a crime. There is a small cocktail and wine menu, but you can choose to BYO for no corkage fee (but like actual wine, don’t bring Franzia).
TL;DR: Come to Trattoria Carina if you want expert Italian food with a T–shirt and jeans kind of vibe.
Location: 2201 Spruce Street
Sun, Mon, Wed: 5 p.m.—9 p.m.
Tues, Thurs—Sat: 5 p.m.—10 p.m.
Price Range: $$$