Can gooey lasagna at a chain restaurant ever be as satisfying as Mark Vetri's ragoût of wild boar?
Having enjoyed both, I can answer affirmatively. You see, when the layered skyscraper can stop a Friday-tired 11-year-old from tormenting his brother, comparisons to fine dining become irrelevant. You thank your stars that chain-eating has progressed from the Denny's of your youth to the Carrabba's of your children's.
We ended up at the Maple Shade eatery after a fatigued cell-phone exchange familiar to most families: "Do you feel like cooking?" "No, do you?"
Another call bumped us ahead on Carrabba's seating list - a nice courtesy to reduce long suburban waits - and we easily joked away 10 minutes in a tight waiting area.
Soon we were led through a bustling dining room to a table not far from a party of 8 million that was celebrating someone's birthday or anniversary or retirement. No worries: The festivities just added to the overall convivial mood.
Almost as soon as we sat down, a basket of warm semolina bread and gussied-up olive oil hit the table. We proceeded to do what we knew we shouldn't: gorge on the soft warm slices.
We quickly moved on to well-prepared meaty crab cakes ($9.99) and remarking at how well-structured the $10 Tuscan red was ("for a chain restaurant"). We also overindulged in the antipasti platter ($10.49): a giant pile of fried calamari, rectangles of fried mozzarella, and crunchy bruschette with tasty tomatoes.
Then, massive main courses arrived. A personal pepperoni pizza ($8.99) could have easily fed two, although the crust seemed too chewy to our pizza expert. The Mezzaluna ($10.99) was half-moon ravioli stuffed with chicken, ricotta and spinach, smothered in a tomato-cream sauce.
The Damian ($16.99) highlighted several items found elsewhere on the menu, including rich lobster ravioli and breaded sea scallops, broiled a little too long in the wood-fired oven, but still delicious.
The aforementioned lasagna ($11.99) defined that genre, loaded with meat and sausage and shamelessly oozing its mozzarella and ricotta.
Given the amount of food already consumed, dessert should have been out of the question, and it was until our waiter described the Sogna di Cioccolata (6.49), which somehow managed to meld a brownie and a wonderfully light chocolate mousse.
As we pushed a hand truck carrying our to-go boxes across the parking lot, we couldn't have been any more satisfied stepping out onto Spruce Street from Vetri's world-famous vestibule. And we had a lot more leftovers!
Discreet Diner | Carrabba's Italian Grill
500 Route 38 East (near Route 73), Maple Shade.
Hours: Noon-9:30 p.m. Sunday; 4-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday;
4-11 p.m. Friday;
3-11 p.m. Saturday.
Handicapped accessible: Yes.
Parking lot: Yes.
Children's menu: Yes.
On the Web: www.carrabbas.com.
The Discreet Diner is a member of the Inquirer staff and welcomes your comments. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.