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Carino's Brodie Lane location develops chain's menu

Addie Broyles

Chris Peitersen doesn't try to cover up the fact that Carino's, the Austin-based restaurant company he's worked at for more than 13 years, is a chain.

"We have a lot of restaurants," says Peitersen, a Colorado native who lives in New Braunfels. "There's no hiding that."

Carino's has 140 restaurants in 26 states and five countries to be exact, including five in the Austin area, and the research and development for all of them happens in an otherwise unsurprising kitchen inside the Carino's in Sunset Valley.

A lot of chain restaurants are going for that "mom-and-pop feel" - in décor, service and food - and some succeed better than others. Carino's in Oregon look a lot like Carino's in New Jersey, and the menus are the same, too, but what sets Carino's apart is the level of from-scratch cooking that's going on in each restaurant and how close Peitersen is to the day-to-day operations. Rather than working in a corporate kitchen at the Carino's headquarters in the Hill Country Galleria, Peitersen goes to work every day in an actual restaurant, where he can work with the staff and interact with diners for instant feedback on the food.

When Peitersen took on the role of head corporate chef at Carino's as a 23-year-old who'd been working at Italian restaurants since he was 14, most of the food was premade and then frozen, which is standard in an industry that works with small profit margins and customers with little patience for a long wait for food.

Almost immediately, he started finding ways to make dishes from scratch. One of the first things he tackled was the kids' menu. Instead of offering the requisite macaroni and cheese, chicken fingers and grilled cheese sandwiches, Peitersen started offering 500-calorie-or-less choices that include paninis, plain pastas and plain sauces, chicken and broccoli or pizza pastas.

Next, he tackled meatballs, which are now hand-mixed and rolled, and lasagna, then the appetizers. It wasn't just about buying fresh ingredients; you had to have staff members who actually knew how to cook them, which required extensive training. To earn a spot on the sauté line, for instance, a cook has to train for five days and be able to recall, by memory, the recipes for at least 40 dishes, some of which have more than a dozen ingredients. (Because they are cooking from scratch, cooks can prepare dishes to fit dietary needs, such as gluten-free, low salt or just plain pickiness.)

Figuring out a way that his staff could make fresh tiramisu every day was one of the last big hurdles he cleared, but Peitsersen isn't done yet. Once he solidifies a recipe and a reliable source for "00" flour, a specially ground flour prized by true Neapolitan pizzaiolis, they can start making their pizza dough from scratch.

In a cost comparison with Carino's primary competition, the Olive Garden, most of the dishes cost about the same at both restaurants, varying in most cases less than a dollar in either chain's favor.

Italian with a Texas twist

He travels often to Italy to work with suppliers, so Peitersen knows that most of his dishes aren't exactly traditional. Peitersen says he's cooked all the classics - puttanesca, carbonara, you name it - "but through the years, you start to play. … Plus, some things don't translate." Alfredo sauce, shrimp scampi and chicken Parmesan are hardly recognizable to an Italian, and "al dente" to an American eater is overcooked to an Italian.

Because all the dishes are developed in Austin, the signature dishes have a Texas flair: minced jalapeño in the tilapia or a pinch of cayenne in the Romano cream sauce that in the shrimp and chicken pasta. "The spicy profile is kind of our thing," he says.

Peitersen prefers "Italian with a twist" to the dreaded "fusion," but in the case of the Italian nachos and the jalapeño tilapia, it's more like "Mexican with a twist." It's blasphemous to admit within earshot of an Italian, but the nachos, made with fried wonton wrappers (listed as "pasta chips" on the menu) and topped with ingredients like black olives, jalapeños and Alfredo sauce, are actually quite good.

The thing is, his whole menu is within earshot of an Italian. When Peitersen first took this job, one of the owners, Creed Ford III, who lives near Austin, sent him to Italy for intense training with Salvatore Barba, a friend of Ford's who runs a restaurant called Il Ritrovo off the Amalfi coast in Italy.

"We cooked together day and night for a month," Peitersen says. They haven't just stayed in touch; they go out of their way to visit one another as often as possible. (What does an Italian eat when he visits Austin? Barbecue, of course.) Back at Il Ritrovo, Barba has been known to wear a Carino's chef coat. "We're almost brothers at this point."

Breaking the chain

Carino's was born out of Brinker International, which also owns ubiquitous brands such as Chili's and Maggiano's Little Italy. In 1997, Ford, who had originally pitched the casual Italian concept when he worked for Brinker, and another partner bought out the chain, then called Spaghetti's Italian Kitchen, and set out to run it as close to a mom-and-pop restaurant as they could. Peitersen, who first started working at Carino's when he was 19, had moved to Texas to help open the New Braunfels and Laredo locations of the chain when Ford asked him to take on the executive chef job.

Because of his business management degree, Peitersen knew the value of training and keeping good people early on. "Chains have so much structure that they often treat their staff like they are robots who don't have brains," Peitersen says. "We identify people who have leadership potential and train them to become sous chefs, kitchen leaders who help manage food costs and leave their own impression on the food."

In fact, the idea for last year's national holiday commercial, which featured a little boy and Parmesan cheese that looked like snow falling on his pasta, came from one of the servers at the Sunset Valley location. Lindsey Bielser, 26, says she knew the idea sounded kind of goofy, but she pitched the idea to the marketing director anyway. She ended up getting a bonus, and they hung a plaque up on the wall that she now walks by every day.

With her easygoing manner and ability not to lose her composure when a 3-year-old dumps a plate of pasta that she has to clean up, she's one of the top servers and has been able to travel across the country to help train staff when new restaurants open. "(Peitersen) makes a point to include us somehow," she says. "When he makes something new, we'll tell him if we like it or not."

On the last Tuesday of every month, each restaurant's executive chef gets to serve whatever he or she wants at a $39.95 wine dinner. They don't make much money on these dinners, but Peitersen says he wants the chefs to have an unfiltered creative outlet, and sometimes, he'll end up developing their ideas into dishes that appear on all the menus.

He also has to make sure that the made-from-scratch approach is still profitable. One way he does that is offering smaller portions at a smaller cost, including lunch portions all day long and single servings of appetizers and desserts. Many restaurants are hesitant to do this because they are worried that the total dollar-per-customer spent will go down, but what they don't realize, Peitersen says, is that at $2 a pop, you can still make money on 2-inch squares of cheesecake because guests end up ordering more of them.

Keeping food in focus

Peitersen's favorite dish of the moment is a braised beef pappardelle in a light cream sauce, made with old-fashioned pot-roasted beef, but he'll never forget the first dish he created for Carino's: a shrimp scampi made from a recipe that hasn't changed much and that still appears on the menu.

The feeling he got then at the idea of 20,000 people on any given night eating his food was as exciting then as it is now, he says, no matter if he's cooking for a few staffers at his home base or rolling out a new dish chain-wide. "I was hooked on the excitement of creating a dish that someone enjoyed. The bottom line, that's why we do this."; 912-2504

Spicy Shrimp and Chicken

3/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes

2 8-oz. chicken breasts

20 oz. dry penne pasta

2 Tbsp. butter, melted

20 medium peeled and cleaned shrimp, tails removed

3 cups sliced mushrooms

1 cup sliced green onions

Salt and pepper, to taste

2 cups heavy cream

1/3 cup grated pecorino Romano cheese,

Cayenne pepper, to taste

Place sun-dried tomatoes in a bowl of water to rehydrate them.

On a hot grill or grill pan, grill chicken breasts until done. Cool and slice into 1/4-inch thick strips. Drain tomatoes.

Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to boil and cook pasta.

While pasta is cooking, add butter to a large sauté pan over medium heat. Once butter is heated, add shrimp, sliced chicken, mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, green onions and salt and pepper. Sauté until shrimp and mushrooms are cooked.

Add heavy cream, pecorino Romano cheese and cayenne pepper. Let cream reduce by 50 percent while thoroughly combining all ingredients. When pasta is done, drain and toss pasta with contents of the sauté pan. Serves 4.

- Chris Peitersen, vice president of culinary development at Carino's

Sweet Chicken Marsala

2 8-oz. chicken breasts, butterfly cut

8 Tbsp. (1 stick) butter, divided

Flour, for dusting

2 cups sliced mushrooms

Salt and pepper, to taste

3/4 cup Marsala wine

1/2 cup beef broth

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut butterflied chicken breasts in half, yielding a total of four chicken breast medallions. Place chicken on a sheet pan and bake for 10 minutes until fully cooked. Set aside and let cool briefly. Add flour to a small plate. Dredge chicken in flour and shake off excess flour.

Heat a sauté pan over medium high heat. Add half the butter. Once butter has melted, add chicken, mushrooms, salt and pepper. Sauté chicken and mushrooms until thoroughly heated and golden brown. Add Marsala wine and beef broth. Reduce by 50 percent and then add the rest of the butter. Let butter reduce into the wine/broth reduction until a thickened sauce forms. The dish can be served atop either a bed of pasta or a bed of wilted spinach.

To prepare spinach, add 4 Tbsp. olive oil and 2 tsp. chopped garlic to a heated sauté pan. Once oil is hot and garlic starts to turn golden brown, turn off heat and add 4 cups fresh spinach, salt and pepper. Toss spinach with olive oil until it becomes warm and starts to wilt.

Place wilted spinach over entire plate. Using tongs, remove chicken medallions from sauté pan and place over center of spinach. Pour Marsala sauce and mushrooms over chicken medallions. Serves 2.

- Chris Peitersen, vice president of culinary development at Carino's