This Hole-in-the-Wall Life

Orange County boasts a few excellent Italian trattorias (see Edwin Goei's review of Flavio's Italian Kitchen at left), but its Italian-American restaurants usually are no different from the Olive Garden or Buca di Beppo: frighteningly large quantities, always oversauced, with too much attention focused on hokey cultural signifiers and not enough on quality food. Yet these restaurants never lack for business, largely because we're conditioned to expect little out of Italian-American cuisine besides heartburn and Dino. And, at first glance, CAROLINE'S in Garden Grove seems to fit this category. Horrible Italian pop music usually blasts on the radio; the outside is painted red, white and green. But as you walk into the dive, a flash of yellow catches your eyes. It's a ripening tomato vine—an apt metaphor by which to appreciate Caroline's.

They cook all the major pastas and meats here: spaghetti, lasagna, ravioli; chicken, veal, sausage. Whatever you order arrives on large plates you can't possibly finish due to the quantity—and this is before savoring the rich, intense tomato, cream and pesto sauces that'll leave you groggy until tomorrow. But within this gluttony lie impressive touches. The mussels, for one: Bathed in a musky sauce, each tiny crustacean bursts with the taste of the sea. The house bread at Caroline's looks like a deflated calzone but is taco-like in its inelegant charms: melted cheese on top, spongy, dotted with enough garlic to make you notice, but not enough to overwhelm your nose. Wine flows freely, but more impressive is the beer list—more than 500, they claim, many from decidedly non-Roman sources such as Vietnam, Guatemala and Thailand. And if there's a better-tasting house soup—vegetable-heavy, with a thick, warming broth—it's at your mother's casa.

Caroline's also hawks good pizzas, calzones and sandwiches—not the best in the county, but worth their cost. Best of all, Caroline's also loves its customers to a fault. The friendly, rotund owner has handed me a $5 gift certificate the past couple of times I've visited. A spumoni scoop comes on the house. Even better, a paragraph in the menu urges diners to suggest new dishes. Such an invitation to creativity explains the Mexican manicotti—the classic Italian version of a crepe now stuffed with carne asada and drenched in a spicier-than-usual marinara sauce. Purists will howl. But you? You'll munch.

CAROLINE'S, 12045 CHAPMAN AVE., GARDEN GROVE, (714) 971-5551.

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