Person Behind The Place:
Born into the industry, Carmine Smeraldo (known as CJ) comes from a long line of restaurant owners dating back to 1984 in Pioneer Square, where II Terrazzo Carmine, his family's business, was first introduced. The Smeraldo brothers, CJ and Philip, spent most of their childhood working in the kitchen, learning everything there was to know about the business from their parents. Whether or not they wanted to do it for a living was a different story.
The grueling and demanding job of being a restaurant owner was something the Smeraldo brothers knew all too well. Desperate to keep their father’s legacy alive his sudden death in 2012, they made a choice to continue the business alongside their mother. In 2016, CJ saw the opportunity to expand to Downtown Bellevue and thus, Carmine’s was born. CJ took everything he knew about the restaurant industry and built a traditional family Italian establishment serving good food, service and hospitality that went beyond expectations. Hear more about CJ's journey to create a fine dining restaurant and where you can find him in Downtown Bellevue.
How does Carmine's differ from your family's Seattle restaurant, II Terrazzo Carmine?
It's a little glitzier. The Seattle location is a bit more "old" feeling. There are plates on the walls, and some people have said it's decorated like grandma's house. Here in Bellevue, we've modernized the design. My mom influenced how the interior looks, and she always has a nice eye for aesthetics. I think that, combined with the energy clientele brings, elevates Carmine's more to a fine dining category. There are all the bells and whistles and a large wine list. Every single ingredient in every dish is made from scratch. It has all the trappings of a fine dining restaurant, but I like to think that it's more comfortable than that. People like to celebrate here, be loud, laugh and sing. In a sense, it fits somewhere in between casual and fine dining.
We've talked to many restaurant owners throughout this series, and It seems like people are moving away from the word "fine dining." Why do you think that is?
Fine dining in a certain sense became synonymous with the elites and something unattainable to the rest of society. I think people look at the table cloths and that's kind of giveaway, right? We love the tablecloths because it adds an extra element of cleanliness and comfort. Comfort to the dining experience, but by no means are people not allowed to get the tablecloths dirty with wine and sauce. The term ‘fine dining’ creates the notion that the experience should be more about the restaurant than the people eating there. I like to flip that around and say the fine dining experience should place the emphasis on those who are at the table, not the restaurant itself.
What is unique about the service at Carmine’s?
I could go on about the menu and wine list and all the unique offerings we have, but I think what makes this restaurant different is the relationships that our staff has built with members of the community. People walk in and it's not uncommon for those who I've never even met to go up to certain staff members and embrace them and ask them how their kids are doing. When people walk through the doors, they truly feel like they're coming home and that makes our job all the more enjoyable. Where people are comfortable and not on edge.
What do you love about working downtown?
Bellevue seems to have an extreme bastion of diversity. You can just walk across the street into Bellevue Downtown Park and you'll hear 20 different languages being spoken by the time you do one loop around. There are so many different walks of life that I come across here. There's a little bit of everybody in this city. Everyone seems like they care for their neighbors and care for the businesses around them. We feel really lucky to be part of a place that cares. I love Bellevue for all those reasons. It's boring to get the same type of customer again and again. Here, everyone who walks through the door is different than the last on several levels.
What are you favorite places to shop?
My guilty pleasure is sunglasses. I love Oliver Peoples in The Bravern. there’s also Bellevue Square. You couldn't have asked for much more in terms of shopping. People travel far and wide to visit this mall for several reasons. It’s incredible.
What are your favorite places to dine?
One of my favorite restaurants is a place called Nibanna Thai Restuarant. I’m not necessarily the biggest Thai food fan in the world, but their food is divine. Another restaurant or just an ownership group that I've come to know and respect is Duke's Seafood. Their product is always fresh and doing seafood is harder than a lot of people think. I've never had a bad meal there, and the owners could not be nicer guys. They're there for any questions or neighborly advice that another restaurant owner could ask about. They've been supportive of us and I love eating there.
Any hidden gems you'd like to share?
There's this place around the corner called T'Latte. I've been going there since high school and they have amazing coffee, pastries and the staff is always really nice. I've gone there to relax and come to notice it's very much a community spot. You're always going to run into somebody you know. You wouldn’t notice it at first when you walk by, but it’s definitely a place worth checking out.
Follow Carmine's for menu updates and offerings.
Person Behind the Place is part of the Heart of Bellevue: our campaign to showcase local businesses while connecting you with stories of activity, creativity and recovery. Find out about our campaign and explore more of what’s happening around Downtown.
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88 102nd Ave NE
Bellevue, WA 98004
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