Torrisi Italian Specialties
250 Mulberry Street, New York NY 10012 (at Prince; map); 212-965-0955
Service: Friendly, accommodating counter service
Setting: Cool, simple space: poster of young Billy Joel, containers of Progresso Bread Crumbs
Compare It To: Mama's, Defonte's, Frankie's 457
Must-Haves: Turkey hero, chicken Parm, lasagna
Cost: $15 for a sandwich, side, and soda
There are thousands of turkey sandwiches made in New York, but how many of them are special? And there are hundreds, if not thousands, of chicken Parm heroes made here as well—but how many of them would you go out of your way for?
I have contemplated these cosmic food questions for decades now, starting with the publication of New York Eats in 1992, continuing with stories about cold heroes and hot heroes in the New York Times. And Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone, New York area natives and chef partners at the newly opened Torrisi Italian Specialties, have apparently been contemplating these same questions—even as they found themselves cooking at some of Manhattan's best restaurants (Babbo, Del Posto, and WD-50 in Carbone's case; Aquavit, Cafe Boulud, and A Voce in Torrisi's).
In an act of reverse culinary engineering, instead of searching out authentic Italian foodstuffs, Rich and Mario decided to go authentic Italian-American. In other words, they opted for the local subway train to Brooklyn and Queens for inspiration—instead of the jumbo jet to Italy.
The turkey sandwich has long suffered at the hands of deli workers, slicing turkey breast and slapping it on rye with mayo, lettuce and tomato—but it doesn't have to be that way. Before I sampled Torrisi's, the turkey sandwich of my dreams had been the turkey breast, fresh mozzarella, and brown gravy hero at Mama's (or Leo's Latticini) in Corona Heights, Queens. And I probably would have skipped the turkey sandwich in favor of more enticing items on the smallish menu at Torrisi's... if not for the intervention of chef Nate Appleman, who happened to be eating lunch there when we walked in.
"Have you been here yet? Don't overlook the turkey sandwich." And then he was gone.
Nate was right. The turkey sandwich was the first since Mama's I would ever consider for admission to my sandwich hall of fame. Called the Panama ($9), the sandwich starts with a slow-roasted turkey breast glazed with honey, garlic, and herbs. It's served with spicy sauce, thin red onion, shaved lettuce, and little mayo and tomato. It would not be gilding the lilly to ask them to put a slice of their terrific housemade mozzarella on the sandwich. Not at all.
But the Panama is just one of many terrific things Carbone and Torrisi are making here. Just about every other sandwich is a home run, and many of the side dishes are a grand slam.
The Chicken Parm (all sandwiches $7 on a roll, $9 for a hero) comes on bread from the neighboring Parisi Bakery, and it comes perilously close to my gold standard—the sandwich Mary Lou Cappeza served at the late, great Corona Heights Pork store. And the potato and egg sandwich is unexpectedly exciting.
Antipasti (all $3-$4 a quarter pound) befit a much more upscale restaurant. In fact, the side dishes here are extraordinary. All of them showcase Carbone's and Torrisi's considerable cooking chops. A caponata-like sweet and sour eggplant relish; "potatoes and pepperoni," the German-Italian-American potato salad of my dreams; a cauliflower dish that calls attention to its use of Progresso breadcrumbs. And Carbone makes the fresh mozzarella ($8 a pound) every morning—amazing on sandwiches, perhaps better on its own.
Right now Torrisi is open only until 5:00 p.m., which befits a sandwich shop, but starting March 2, they're going to be open for dinner as well. I can't wait. For right now, though, the great sandwiches, antipasti, and modest sweets will more than suffice. Torrisi and Carbone have succeeded in elevating foods that most of us had relegated to the steam table scrap heap by the ton. I didn't think it was possible—but in their hands, chicken Parm and turkey sandwiches seem fresh and original.
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