Acknowledging—and honoring—family connections is critical to Luca Onofri, chef and owner of the new Carmine restaurant in Newburyport. And it shows in his soulful renditions of classic Italian dishes, many inspired by his relatives. From the light, moist meatballs to the hearty, rich Bolognese, the Peabody native doesn’t skimp on quality ingredients or scratch preparations, hewing close to the ways he learned from his uncle, Damien DiPaola, who owns Carmelina’s in the North End. In fact, the name Carmine is an homage to his uncle’s restaurant—and his influence appears all over the menu, starting with the Tuna Arrabiata, which is adapted from a similar dish at Carmelina to great success.
The thick slab of tuna has a hard sear on just one side, and sits on a few mandoline-sliced potato chips, with a seriously hot roasted serrano pepper on top. The whole dish is brought together with a drizzled reduction of black olives and Amarone wine from Carmine’s impressive by-the-glass program. If the wine has been open more than a couple of days, it heads to the cooking pot to produce the salty-sweet sauce. The heat in this dish comes primarily from the intense serrano—if you prefer less spice, add tiny slices from it as you savor the fish. Pair it with a glass of Amarone—the two balance each other beautifully.
Onofri is particular about his compact yet growing wine list—he chooses each bottle himself, with an emphasis on Italian classics that strike that narrow balance between quality and price.
The chef, whose parents both immigrated to the U.S. from Italy, was drawn to cooking at a young age, mixing Italian preparations with French influences learned from his father, who owned a French bistro. He’s continuing the multigenerational lineage, bringing his stepson, J.D. Horne, into the restaurant as sous chef.
With such deep roots in Italy, it’s no wonder the Asiago meatballs are delicious—airy, moist, and very flavorful, they come with a drizzle of fresh, bright tomato sauce to liven everything up. Vegetarians—or really anyone—will enjoy the eggplant parm app. Super thin slices of eggplant are tender but toothsome, with a very subtle breading that lets the vegetable shine through, again dressed lightly with that tomato sauce.
The pasta menu touches on classics, like Cacio e Pepe, and some not-so-classics, like Crazy Alfredo—a spicy creamy Alfredo tossed with Soppressata and chicken. All the pastas are handmade by a local family friend—but Onofri doesn’t want to share that secret.
However, he will gladly share the secrets of his intense Angus Bolognese, a hearty dish of slow-braised angus short rib in a charred tomato sauce, served over gnocchi and balanced with a dollop of ricotta cheese. But you probably can’t mimic it anyway.
Just as much thought goes into Mimmo’s Steak, named after Onfri’s grandfather. A carefully composed dish with a 16-ounce wet-aged sirloin at the center, the thick steak is cooked sous-vide to the ideal temperature, then seared to a perfect crust and served with broccoli rabe, roasted potatoes, some salty garlic crisps, and one big roasted jalapeno, then drizzled with a deeply flavorful balsamic reduction, again enhanced by open bottles from that fancy wine by the glass program. While it sounds like a lot, the bitterness of the greens is a perfect foil to the rich meat and the sweet glaze.
The cozy restaurant—housed in the former Brine space—is warm and welcoming, with dark wood, exposed brick, and a mix of Italian pop and classic Frank Sinatra in the background.
Carmine’s doesn’t currently offer dessert, partly inspired by the North End tradition of strolling down to a pastry shop after dinner for a final bite. But until we have Modern Pastry on State Street, perhaps content yourself with a Tiramisu martini—one of the house specialty drinks. And toast Onofri’s family, who clearly brought him up right.
5 State St., Newburyport, 978-255-4660, carminenewburyport.com