As someone who has over the last three years spent hours talking about food and the creative process with Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone, I thought it would be interesting to talk to them one on one (or should I say one on two) about Carbone, their latest restaurant that focuses on Italian American fine dining. Their answers were always thoughtful, often surprising, and showed just how intellectually curious they are. So here goes.
Ed Levine: I thought it was really interesting that you chose post-WWII as your point of inspiration, considering southern Italian immigrants came here earlier. Why go with the '50s?
Mario Carbone: Because that's when they had families here, and then their families grew up, and that's the time we tried to capture. So they were Italian Americans, not just Italians.
Ed: They were living a better life than their parents.
Rich Torrisi: Exactly. They were speaking English, they were going to school...
Mario: Fusion was happening. They were becoming Americans. So that was an important time period. If we were trying to capture the turn of the century instead, it would be very Italian.
Rich: The food was changing, too. You know, they were less about trying to recreate their home dishes exactly; the food was morphing. They were eating more protein, things were abundant.
Ed: And you're not Italian Italian—you're the product of all this. So this is, in a certain way, a very personal restaurant.
Mario: We love this style restaurant. We wanted to ensure that there was a working model for this restaurant to continue, because the ones that still exist, we're not sure how much longer we're going to have them—the Bamonte's, the Park Sides, those types of restaurants that do this style food.
Ed: And how would you define the concept of this restaurant?
Rich: We say updating Italian American fine dining. If you think about it, it's hard to find fine dining that's truly Italian American, you know? And it's perplexing that in this city of all cities, with such a huge Italian American influence, there's not one bastion of that cuisine.
Ed: Right, there are places all over, but those are still sort of family style.
Rich: And we bring some items family style. It's just the element of refinement, too.
Ed: So what brought this about? I love you guys, but I don't think of you as particularly refined chefs. There's refinement at Torrisi with that tasting menu, but also a minimalist quality, and at Parm, you know, there's a soundtrack and red checker tablecloths, but we're still talking about a sandwich shop.
Mario: It's the same story though. It's all the same book, you know, it's just this chapter needed to be done this way for us. If you look at our backgrounds, this is totally within the breadth of what we're capable of doing. Before Torrisi we were only doing three and four star restaurants. We never opened a sandwich shop in our lives.
Ed: Right. We forget this because we see the first two things you put out—Parm and Torrisi are your first two albums, and now you're going through an evolution.
Mario: So a restaurateur usually does the big booming restaurant and then starts to spawn off smaller concepts with that brand. It happened the other way for us, I think.
Ed: I want to talk about the menu at Carbone. It's really interesting to me because it ranges from Italian American classics to updated Italian American classics, and the dirty little secret of the restaurant is that everything is updated. But then there are things like the beef carpaccio with walnuts and black truffles that I don't think have ever been served at a classic Italian American restaurant.
Rich: This story starts with me and Mario working next to each other at Cafe Boulud. AC [Andrew Carmellini] was the chef who'd joke around with us and talk Italian American food. We'd always joke around about how funny it would be if we served it given our backgrounds. But then the time came for us to do our own thing and we just embraced it.
Mario: Rich was leaving A Voce and I was leaving Del Posto, but we were doing so separately. We were living together...
Rich: But with no intention of joining forces. We had just both gotten to the exact same point at the exact same place at the exact same time, and we were both leaving our jobs...with no next job. We had never done that in our lives.
Rich: [To Mario] Remember when we were sitting outside on Stone Street and you were like, "I gotta do this deli," and I was like, "You can't do that without me. We're gonna do it."
Ed: So the menu at Carbone has baked clams and seafood salad and everything else. What kind of research did you do?
Rich: Yeah, like, we went to all these restaurants...Bamonte's, Rao's, Il Mulino, Scalinatella, Randazzo's, Gargiulo's, Don Pepe's, Park Side...everywhere we could find red sauce, we ate it by the pound.
Mario: And then you gotta talk to all the guys, you gotta talk to the characters. If our friend Larry doesn't think this restaurant is legitimate, it's not legitimate. I mean, these people grew up at these restaurants, you know, they have to be able to sit down and open up the menu and feel completely comfortable with the options there and already know what 85% of those dishes are.
Rich: And the great part is, for younger people who don't know some of this stuff, dishes like Chicken Scarpiello are new to them.
Mario: There's a certain assumption with the way we wrote the menu. It's an intentionally forced dialogue.
Ed: You guys like to be funny, in person, on your menu...
Mario: We really hate the stodgy restaurants.
Ed: So you don't even mind poking fun at yourselves?
Rich: Nah, like the seafood salad. We serve it in a radicchio cup.
Mario: How seriously are you going to take it?
Ed: Your tasting menu at Torrisi, too, is full of chuckles and sly nods. You guys like sly nods.
Rich: You gotta have fun. We work so hard...we've been doing this every day since we were teens. We gotta say some things that are about us.
Ed: Let's talk about style and how it relates to this restaurant. Again, you went from minimalist Torrisi to slightly less minimalist Parm, to this restaurant, which I think in many ways is true to its roots, and yet there are a lot of spiffy, stylized things. Like the uniforms from Zac Posen and the art on the walls and the new-old tile floor...that's a departure for you.
Rich: It's no longer just about serving awesome food; we need to provide an awesome experience.
Ed: And that was the first time you really thought about that?
Rich: It's the first time we knew we had to execute it so well, but we've always been passionate about those elements.
Ed: Even at Torrisi and Parm?
Mario: Listen, at Torrisi you have the playlist of old sampled hip hop songs, so it's all the originals. That particular playlist is all the originals of the hip hop songs we love.
Rich: We used to play the hip hop songs but got so much flak because of all the cursing, and we realized, "maybe this isn't totally appropriate," and then we started playing the songs the hip hop tracks were based on, and all the sudden everyone loved it.
Mario: The waiters all wear Adidas sneakers as uniforms, which is very particular to us. The shelves on the walls say so much.
Ed: So it was deceptively casual...
Mario: We take pride in scrutinizing over the details; whether we decide to blow a detail out or not, we talk about it. We like to believe that we talk about all the pertinent details, so when it came to this part of the story, we felt Carbone demanded certain things blown out to so we could nail the theme. I mean, it's a movie set. The whole thing is a completed story.
Rich: We want the experience to remain exactly what it is, though we're updating it and making it legitimately ours. We didn't want to just make Rocco beautiful and have people say, "Okay, they cleaned up Rocco's." But first and foremost, we have to pay respect to those original restaurants.
Ed: And when I ate there, I looked around the restaurant, and people were sort of reveling in the space. It's not that they were consciously going to where you wanted them to go. But you just created this platform for a really fun—but serious—Italian American meal. Is that really what you're after when all is said and done?
Rich: That's a big part of it. At the end of the night one night, the captains were dancing with customers. People just want to get in there and drink and have a good time.
Mario: Rao's has that feel, you know. But, I mean, it's Rao's.
Ed: It's Rao's.
Mario: But there's something about this theme that's resonated with a lot of people.
Ed: Right, young and old.
Mario: Young and old. Italian or not.
Ed: At that point, any self consciousness or irony sort of floats away.
Ed: So how about price? People say, "Oh, it's an Italian American restaurant, but Italian American restaurants in my youth were a lot cheaper than this." Do people complain when they're at the restaurant?
Rich: No one yet has complained about prices. I was definitely ready to expect a lot of complaining, but I haven't heard it once. Because when you get your plate of food at Carbone, you don't think to yourself, "Where did my $32 go?"
Mario: You know what was one of the first things we bought for the restaurant? To-go boxes.
Ed: So what about the "controversial" $50 veal parmesan? First of all, it serves three—I really think you should put "for two" underneath it. There's no downside to that.
Rich: Honestly, as much as we completely always appreciate your suggestions, we don't give a fuck about all that Twitter shit. People are gonna talk shit all the time. The way we do portions at this restaurant, abundance is what we're going for, not shock value. Though for that dish in particular, maybe that's the big one. But for every single dish you should never think, "Wow, why does that cost that much?"
Ed: And you're using expensive, high end veal?
Rich: Yeah, we're not making tons of money off this.
Mario: It's buffalo mozzarella, it's tomatoes that we canned last summer...
Rich: And some of this stuff is more expensive because of the giveaways: the cheese, the ham, the bread, the big bread basket...
Ed: What would you like the diner's overall reactions to be?
Rich: Laughing, smiles. At Torrisi it's all one menu, but here it's about making the customer happy. We'll do whatever they want.
Ed: Making substitutions...that's violating one of the rules of the fancy pants chef.
Mario: That's only a current rule. The old rules say that the customer knows what they're talking about, and they were here before a chef was a chef. I'd like to make someone feel special, you know. "I'd like the shrimp, no shells, fra diavolo," and we're like, "Okay." And Mrs. So-And-So's going to come in every Thursday night and get the shrimp, no shells, fra diavolo, and it's going to be her favorite restaurant. This menu has 50 things on it and she chose none of them.