Food Court: Carbone Makes a Case for the Greatness of the Red-Sauce Joint


One of the things I’ve always liked about Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone is that they’ve never lacked an extremely clear vision or the culinary chops to execute that vision clearly.*

At their first restaurant, Torrisi Italian Specialties, they made the case, through seven irresistible courses like fresh gnocchi made from upstate ricotta and da vero olive oil from California, that American products are in no way inferior to their imported counterparts. I still think the restaurant’s $50 tasting menu, and its no-reservations policy, were the most democratic and American thing going in 2010. Let three years of long lines testify to the justness of its cause.

At Carbone, the group’s glimmering new restaurant in Greenwich Village, they are seeking to overturn the conviction, sanctified by stereotype and ratified by custom, that the red-sauce joint** is and always shall be no more than mediocre. There is no inherent flaw in the cuisine, they assert, that would prevent it from rising to greatness. It has suffered only a certain laxity of execution and paucity of ingredient.

It’s a tough case to make, but if anyone could succeed, it’s these guys. They’re the Clarence Darrows of meatballs, the Atticus Finches of fra diavolo, the Johnnie Cochranes of piccata—and Messrs. Carbone and Torrisi have constructed their argument with clever mathematical precision.

Let’s say, for the sake of this case, that restaurant greatness is determined by independent variables such as, but not limited to, location, design, service, menu, execution, relevance and crowd. At Carbone, each of these variables is held as constant as possible to the value that would be assigned to them in a traditional red-sauce joint. Only one is allowed to shift in the equation of restaurant greatness: virtuosity of execution.

Every decision has been made with the statistical modeling power of Nate Silver. For instance, location: Carbone inhabits the bones of Rocco, an Italian restaurant founded in 1922 that closed in January. Taking Deleuzian semiotics literally, the Torrisi boys didn’t even take down the sign. They just added their name over it.

The interior, likewise, has been duped from a mid-century Italian-American restaurant. The footprint of Rocco, a warren of small rooms, is intact. The floors are tile; the ceilings are tin. Roosters are frozen mid-crow on the terra cotta plates. There are white tablecloths with lace.

Service: old men in maroon tuxedos move with the ease of a life spent manning serving stations. My old man, Marco, had spent 30 years at Cipriani. He seemed as if from Central Casting, but his Italian accent was real, his charm was discreet, the wiry gray hairs on his ears were vintage. (That maroon tuxedo, though—that was Zac Posen.)

As for the menu, it is unwieldy in dimension, but most of its items are almost verbatim recreations of Mama Leone’s. Caesar salad is dutifully rendered unto. Garlic bread is proffered. Proteins are repeated mantra-like, and many come either piccata or Parmesan. There’s a T-bone. There’s a pork chop. There are 10 pastas, from rigatoni alla vodka to spaghetti al mare, but none are surprising.

And now the river card: execution.

At Carbone neither ingredient nor technique—the components of execution—is stinted on. In fact, as far as ingredients go, it’s total Vegas baller-style. The things I ate had more frequent flier miles than I do. In the scampi alla scampi ($38), three Scottish langoustines, which are flown in twice weekly, are so fresh they only seem to be playing dead, even when halved. In the chicken scarpiello, the poultry shibboleth of any red-sauce joint, the cotechino is LaFrieda, the mushrooms are fresh morels, and the chicken is brined, marinaded, steamed, dried, roasted and crisped.

Marco, meanwhile, prepared the Caesar alla ZZ ($17) with hand-picked baby romaine lettuce, topped with a Spanish sardine and pecorino cheese and ricotta salata. And the lobster fra diavolo ($m/p) is uncomfortably close to the size of a newborn, but instead of foundering on a bed of pasta, is served like a big boy on a plate. (The vermicelli is incorporated as a thickening agent in the stock.)

But even better than those things, which are all delicious, are those few instances in which Carbone has liberated itself from the tyranny of the past. A posillipo pan roast ($19)—posillipo is a rarely seen clam-and-mussels stew served in a light tomato sauce—is given a muscular kick of oysters, sausage and Worcestershire sauce. It’s Naples via Grand Central, and not at all trad.

The cold antipasti section of the menu I came to think of like the Langley of unexpected delight, an unassuming storefront behind which a dark fruitful freedom is exercised. Here, uni is served in its deep purple shell over ice. The ocher turds*** of uni are dusted with breadcrumbs, a gentle oregano vinaigrette and a confit of habanero peppers. Whether or not such a thing was served at the red-sauce joints of the past, it will be, or should be, at the red-sauce joints of the future.

Alas, such a free hand is rare. Carbone is caught between respect for the product and reverence for the past. It’s like My Antonia but with Italian food. Unfortunately, they err too much toward reverence.

Messrs. Carbone and Torrisi do not seem ready to acknowledge that many of these classic Italian-American recipes emerged from poverty, sometimes in southern Italy, where the vast majority of Italian migrants hailed from, but more often in the homes of the newly settled. So while dishes like chicken scarpiello or lobster fra diavolo may have been transmuted to restaurant kitchens by the 1950s, they never shook off their tenement grit. Like feijoada in Brazil and curries in India, the heavy veil of garlic or the air cover of heat, for instance, is not just a spice but a gambit to mask often inferior ingredients. The poverty is baked in.

It’s edifying to know that until quite recently my scampi had been happily swanning about in Scottish waters, but by the time they arrive at my plate, their tender flesh has been transubstantiated into pure garlic. It’s delicious, but not $38 delicious. Indeed, the complaint here isn’t that things aren’t tasty—they are, in the typical garlicky, buttery, oily, parsley-y way. It’s that in being true to the past, Carbone disregards the present.

And the Carbone case is flawed in other ways too. The main error isn’t in execution but in theory. Specifically, its experiment fails to account for multicollinearity—which is to say that two or more of the independent variables are highly correlated.

For example, if one increases execution, and in doing so raises prices, the crowd will most likely change. Those who can afford a $350 dinner for two are not the people who can afford a $150 dinner for two. So Carbone isn’t full of families or seemingly even people celebrating special occasions, the traditional demographic of red-sauce joints.

It’s full of glamorous people of whom your mother, should you describe to her why they are glamorous, would neither understand nor approve.

That, in turn, affects relevance. The greatest gift Carbone gives the chosen few who score reservations is a kitsch experience about something they needn’t feel shame for fetishizing, since it has already been fetishized for them. We’re all in on the joke. Even Marco had a wink. The major exceptions here are Messrs. Carbone and Torrisi, who, I have no doubt, are absolutely genuine in their quest for greatness.

They succeed, but the ways in which Carbone is great are simply too often at odds with what makes a red-sauce joint great. There may be great red-sauce joints out there, but Carbone is not one of them.

* In fairness, the duo is actually a trio. Jeff Zalaznick, a former investment banker and a super cool dude, is the third partner. But he doesn’t cook and I don’t foresee a “Zalaznick’s” opening anytime soon.

** Red-sauce joint here is defined as the type of traditional Italian-American restaurant which became popular in post-World War II America.

*** “It’s an industry term.” -Mona Lisa Vito, My Cousin Vinny.