Torrisi Italian Specialties
250 Mulberry Street, New York, NY 10012 (at Prince Street; map); 212-965-0995; piginahat.com
Service: Efficient and caring
Setting: Cool, simple space: poster of Billy Joel, containers of Progresso Bread Crumbs
Compare It To: Frankie's 457
Must-Haves: Mozzarella, gnocchi, skate
Cost: $50 for 4 courses that change nightly
Grade: A—if you like The Best of Blondie accompanying your meal at high volume. (A- if that bothers you.)
Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone, chef-owners of the proudly Italian-American Torrisi Italian Specialties, prove in their recently-launched dinner service that their understanding of serious food extends far beyond red sauce.
Having eaten the insanely good sandwiches and side dishes at Torrisi for lunch a number of times, I thought that when we walked through the door at Torrisi for dinner, we were going to find elevated southern Italian red-sauce specialties—something like what the Frankies, Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli, do so very well at Frankie's 457 and their other ventures.
That would have been good enough for me. But dinner at Torrisi Italian Specialties is a culinary and gustatory tour de force. For a measly $50 you get a relentlessly contemporary four-plus course meal—much closer in spirit to Wylie Dufresne, Daniel Boulud and Andrew Carmellini than your Italian-American grandmother. (Unless, of course, your grandmother from Salerno sous-vided her chicken or made her mozzarella to order.)
What Torrisi and Carbone have done is take the beloved foods they grew up with in the New York area and reworked them into something truly memorable, through the use of extraordinary ingredients and a combination of classic and contemporary cooking techniques—creating something that is original and wholly their own. How often can one honestly say that about a New York restaurant?
Everyone fitting into the eighteen seats at Torrisi is served the same dinner on any given night. Though the dishes change every day, most of the daily changes involve the antipasti. Seven or eight antipasti and and the same number of pasta rotate on the menu—along with a number of seasonal additions.
The greatest highlight of our dinner was the warm mozzarella with olive oil and cream, which may be the single best plate of mozzarella I've ever been served in this country. Carbone stretches every dish of mozzarella to order—and if you don't think that extra effort is worth it, I challenge you to take a bite of this supple, creamy cheese and tell me I'm wrong. "Frank's Salami Bread" is another thing of genius—bread studded with pieces of salami and baccala that's somehow not too fishy.
Sheep's milk ricotta gnocchi, with our man Rick Bishop's ramps and Pecorino, is another dish that's going in my hall of fame. The gnocchi, which according to Rich Torrisi are really gnudi (ricotta-based, not potato-based), are slightly tangy, light clouds of deliciousness.
Of the entrees, the Skate Francese was served in a lovely lemon butter sauce; Devil's chicken sounds like just another chicken dish enlivened by some heat-producing ingredient, but there's a lot more going on. A whole fresh chicken is cooked sous-vide before breasts and thighs are then charred on a hot grill, then tossed in a chili paste and placed on atop yogurt—it's creamy and spicy, smoky and sweet.
Portions are reasonable for this multi-course repast, so we did have room for the stupendous multi-course dessert made by Torrisi server and former wd~50 assistant pastry chef Katherine Beto. Rainbow cookies, mini-cream puffs, little cannoli made with Salvatore ricotta, nougat, and St. Joseph's fritters all added up to make me a first-time believer in Italian-American bakery-derived sweets.
I only hope that Torrisi represents the serious restaurant of future. No pretense, no attitude, just two courageous and enormously talented cooks, who stand behind a kind of American cuisine that's distinctly their own. They acknowledge the past without being slaves to it, they are relentlessly contemporary in their outlook, and they are ready, willing and able to cook their asses off for eighteen people at a time—while making each one of those eighteen people feel great about dining with them.
Make the effort to be one of those lucky eighteen. Their food is that good. You can say you knew them when.