Carmine’s, a New York transplant to Texas, celebrated its first anniversary in September, and chef/owner Phil Sprio was feeling philosophical about business when he came out to our table after dinner. Still feeling like a pioneer, too, in the fine-dining desert that is Schertz. The handsome restaurant was reasonably full when we arrived around 7:30 on a Friday night, and the diners included a long table of regulars there to celebrate the restaurant’s success. Though Sprio is drawing from as far away as New Braunfels and Alamo Heights, he’d like to broaden his base even more. (To Dining Companion, herself a retired colonel, much of the clientele looked like both active and former military.)

As the place had emptied out considerably by 9 p.m., we’d have to agree that broader appeal may become necessary. Maybe the new menu he’d like to roll out would help to re-ignite a buzz. Not that there aren’t some keepers from the old one. The gnocchi alla cucina, rustic and sophisticated in equal measure, were an early favorite, and the odd-sounding pairing of pan-seared scallops with a tiny lemon tart was one of last year’s most pleasant culinary surprises. Chicken Carmine’s also elevated the frequently feckless bird to new heights with its combination of herbs, wine, scallions and tomatoes. DC, having worn a white blouse with a plunging but ruffly neckline, liked the appetizer, a creation of artichoke bases topped with a crab stuffing. Bread crumbs, a little celery and spicing that smacked of Old Bay were the crab’s sidekicks, and the combination worked — though we both felt the artichoke base almost superfluous. Spinach leaves filled out the plate. An inventive take on the classic caprese salad followed in new, piled-high guise, with a prosciutto-filled mozzarella roll subbing for the usual slices of pillowy cheese. Good try, but two comments — well, really three: For all its invention, the prosciutto roll is a little chewy in context; there was too much glazed balsamic; and we could have used more fresh basil. Pulled apart into individual pieces, we liked them all, especially some unexpected caramelized onion.

The equally inventive-sounding monkfish scaloppini, unavailable during last year’s visit, is still AWOL, a fact our newly hired but especially attentive waiter announced upfront, then confirmed with the kitchen. I’m not going to suggest that the evening’s osso bucco special be added, however, at least not yet. The classic veal joint was impeccably cooked to a melting tenderness, and, as with all the plates, there was a feeling of abbondanza. But the underlying fettuccini was a little leathery. Some traditional gremolata (a combination of chopped garlic, parsley and lemon zest — also used with fish) would have gone a long way toward adding spark. We did manage to extract just a little marrow from the bone, by the way; don’t forget to try. Potentially, this is just the kind of dish that would work with many of the reds from Carmine’s well-conceived wine list. Creature of habit that I am, I ordered the same Péppoli from Antinori that I had before and still liked it a lot with most of our dishes. For the Shrimp a la Portofino, though, you’ll have to look to the whites. By themselves, the shrimp in a tomato-cream sauce would have been a tad uneventful, but fried salad peppers are a genial addition that takes the dish to a different level.

Carmine’s attractive servers do their job professionally and discreetly, it should be noted, so it was a little unfair of us to put ours to the test of extracting secrets of the chocolate mousse cake from the kitchen. It was so moist, we thought, it must have been soaked in something; the creamy intervening layers seemed to hold more mysteries than chocolate alone could conjure; there were hints of berry, weren’t there? But no. Apparently it was just a very good dessert inflaming the imagination. No secrets were forthcoming. Most of the desserts, including an Italian-style cheesecake, are made entirely in-house, by the way, so there are many more to be explored. And, whenever it appears, there’s that new menu to explore as well.

Author: Ron Bechtol

Photographer: Janet Rogers