Atmosphere: Italian suburban.
Hours: Mondays through Fridays, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturdays, 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Sundays, 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Piano music only Mondays and Tuesdays; light opera and show tunes performed Wednesdays through Saturdays.
Price range: $6.95 to $15.95; children's dinners, $3.25 and $3.50.
Reservations: A good idea on weekends.
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express.
Special facilities: Accessible to wheelchairs if one curb can be negotiated; easy parking in shopping center lot; booster seats and highchairs available.
Italy and opera make a pair as easily as do Italy and pasta, so it seems quite natural for Caruso's Ristorante to offer its customers Italian food with an extra dimension: live performances Wednesdays through Saturdays of light opera and Broadway show tunes.
An outlying suburban shopping center like Fox Mill Center seems an unlikely setting for virtuoso performances, but the concept of Caruso's is really only one step removed from the dinner theater gambit. Live entertainment has its lure whether the singer croons love songs or entertains customers with soprano selections from "Finian's Rainbow."
Caruso's offers half-hour performances by a pair of appealing singers and a piano accompanist; it is pleasing if the music is to your taste.
Since this is an evening out with a difference, it is a bit more expensive than stopping in at the local spaghetti house. Although there is no cover charge, pastas run $6.95 to $8.95, and veal, seafood and beef entrees are in the $10.95 to $11.95 range.
Salad is not complimentary, so the bill can escalate quickly. Although the menu does not state it, for $3.50 the kitchen will prepare smaller portions of some dishes for children.
Service was friendly, casual and efficient the night we visited. Opera posters and photos of Caruso as Pagliacci and others dominate the walls. Small tables and red-leatherette booths run the length of the narrow, carpeted dining room. To the right is a long bar, and at the end of the room, the piano and a small performance area. Singers walk through the dining and bar areas while performing, so customers facing away from the piano don't miss anything.
The menu, of course, is Italian with a few continental specialties such as steak Diane and crepes Suzette offered weeknights only. Our older daughter ordered fettucine Alfredo ($7.95), and her sister ordered a plate of lasagna ($7.50).
Veal and seafood constitute most of the other offerings and my husband and I decided to sample veal Florentine ($10.95) and veal valdostana, a Cordon Bleu-style dish of veal stuffed with ham and covered with a cheese sauce ($11.95). Both came with potato and vegetable.
The meat and seafood entrees, which cost significantly more than the pastas, were by far the better dishes. The fettucine was properly cooked but had a disappointingly thin cream sauce. Fettucine Alfredo should be rich with cream and Parmesan.
The lasagna was adequate, although we all thought the meat sauce too sweet--the only thing that seemed to distinguish the dish.
The veal dishes were more satisfying; the meat was tender and gently cooked, and the fillings of spinach and ham complemented rather than overwhelmed the delicate taste of the veal. Side dishes were well-prepared and enjoyable.
For dessert, Caruso's is big on coffee and liqueur concoctions, with cappuccino and espresso offered as well. If the chef has made no special dessert, you may order pastries from the Watergate Bakery. We sampled two, both rather dry and forgettable.
Caruso's offers, for the suburbs, an unusual dining experience, where your dollar will buy you some pleasant entertainment and average Italian food. Our tab for four, including tax and tip, was $56.98.