Torrisi Italian Specialties, NYC: 20-Course $125 Tasting Menu That Manages To Be Flat-Out Fun

[Photos: Jessica Leibowitz]

Fun is usually not the first thing that comes to mind when I think of tasting menus. Expensive? For sure. Exciting? I hope so. Tasty? Better be. Show-offy? Often.

So when I went to Torrisi Italian Specialties for Rich Torrisi's freshly designed $125 twenty-course tasting menu, I couldn't help but wonder: could the chef's characteristic sense of humor make such a marathon meal a fun experience?

I knew if anyone could do it, it would be Torrisi, an insanely talented and impish young chef with serious cooking chops, a strong sense of what works, and a remarkable ability to be able to laugh at himself.

When chefs and friends Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone (who had both put in serious time at restaurants like Del Posto and Cafe Boulud) opened Torrisi, they were serving the elevated Italian-American food at lunch they are now serving next door at Parm day and night. The chicken parm of our dreams was succeeded by a $45 four course tasting menu for dinner that is still served to most diners at Torrisi, albeit at $60 these days. Those menus gave us an inkling of the restless culinary intellect of Torrisi and Carbone. (If you're ever there when they're offering the pastrami-seasoned short rib you'll see why.) But the new tasting menu was not put together in a night. Rich Torrisi has spent the last thirteen months working closely with chef de cusine Eli Kulp and sous chef Dan Haar developing the tasting menu that you're about to read about. (Carbone is focusing on Parm at the moment, though according to Torrisi, his partner still supplied general direction and inspiration for the new tasting menu.)

Of course, the chefs realized that a $100+ tasting menu had to be served in a different setting than the original Torrisi. Rich Torrisi says:

The way I like to describe the new setting, food, and service is we changed a lot of things but didn't change anything. I believe the spirit and the soul of the restaurant to be a natural evolution of what was. We removed the deli counter and coolers and built a chef counter. We framed the deli menus so everyone will always know that's what it started as. We added a booth where the cash register used to be. In the end its the same number of seats, but everyone has a little more room to breathe. The room was polished and detailed, new lighting, new central air, new seats, new menus, new plateware, new wine list. Basically we sought to upgrade across the board; we also did a lot of kitchen renovation as well.

They also upped the service quotient: "Service was slowed down a bit; we started taking reservations to improve the guest experience; and we added more bodies to make sure things always get done properly." The changes are both subtle and substantial; service has been ratcheted up, but it felt right for the new setting. Our servers were friendly, unpretentious, and knowledgeable; the servers didn't feel the need to hit us over the head with how serious they were.*

*Full disclosure: everyone working at the restaurant knew who we were. But looking around, it seemed as if everyone in the restaurant felt well taken care of. To close the disclosure loop, we paid full price for our meal and received no additional courses or other comps.

Torrisi tips his hand with the first couple of courses, bar snacks that are as whimsical as they are delicious. Torrisi is equal parts culinary historian, anthropologist, and chef, so I wasn't surprised when our server brought us a small bowl of freshly baked soft pretzel nuggets: perfectly baked, yeasty, and easy to dive into. Let the fun and games tasting menu begin. As an infrequent drinker who tends toward the nonalcoholic, I loved "The Americano," a mocktail based on a classic NY drink made with housemade bitters and a twist of orange.

Check out all the dishes in the slideshow »

Torrisi has the intellectual curiousity of a lay NYC food historian, so if he says his little dish of olives stuffed with a soft-poached quail egg is based on a turn of the century dish, who are we to argue. These olives are a little bit of culinary sleight of hand; in fact they are not olives at all, but rather a quail egg that's been dyed and compressed with black olive juice to look like an olive. These are extraordinary bites of food, accented with fresh sage, olive oil, and lemon peel, with the poached quail eggs literally exploding as they hit your palate.

And you don't have to be a smoker to appreciate these sable "cigarettes": gnocco frito with cream cheese, smoked sable, and poppyseed ash is an exquisitely rendered tribute to Jewish appetizing stores like the venerable Russ & Daughters.

A raw Peconic Bay scallop and a small local oyster (both sourced from Widow's Hole) tasted as if they came directly from the sea to the plate, accompanied by one jingle bell pepper and one tabasco pepper from the Brooklyn Grange urban farm in Long Island City. And escargot replace clams in Torrisi's Escargot Casino featuring house-smoked bacon. Another dish as tasty as it is clever.

I never really understood the appeal of the Chinese-American staple chicken and cashews, but the same cannot be said for the version of the dish here, featuring a chicken oyster (one of the two small, round pieces of dark meat near the thigh) that gets poached and fried then rolled in cashews and oyster sauce. And no Chinese restaurant I've ever been to would serve these with original Tiffany oyster forks, and the very juxtaposition of the dish and the forks made me chuckle.

A caviar course? But of course, though this is not your parents' caviar service: Royal Transmontanus caviar from California is served with a wink and a nod and creme fraiche atop tiny bite-size knishes stuffed with a molten potato puree with leeks that tastes like the best potato knish ever created. A bed of toasted kasha is a lovely textural contrast to the the smooth and creamy potato puree. Brighton Beets, "a nod to the people of South Brooklyn," are roasted beets, crunchy brussel sprout leaves, pickled apples, dill pollen, and a homemade cream made with pumpernickel bread. It's informed by tradition yet thoroughly contemporary, and so evocative of a New York neighborhood Torrisi's tasting menu might as well come with a subway map so that diners can get their bearings.

Here's a dish to convert any and all mackerel haters. Clean, fresh-tasting mackerel cooked in crazy water, tomato broth made with summer tomatoes that have been preserved, served with seabean ash. The amazing broth tastes like the best gazpacho you've never had.

Classically trained chefs love to play with foie gras, and Torrisi is no exception. Here the foie is poached in butter with a classic Newberg sauce (associated with an old-fashioned lobster dish that bears its name), made with cream, brandy, cayenne, and mushrooms. It's served with cured brandy maple syrup gelee and a little fresh tarragon, and comes with buttery toasted brioche. Spread the insanely smooth, rich and delicious foie on this brioche, and you will know things you didn't know before.

The foie arrives simultaneously with a Delmonico steak tartare, topped with the cutest mini-cornichon slices you've ever seen and an intact egg yolk filled with luscious bearnaise sauce. You will be tempted to just break the yolk, spread it over the tartare and transport it immediately to your mouth. That definitely works, but you can exponentially increase the pleasure you derive from the dish by spreading the tartare on the thrice cooked thick potato chips dredged in capers and salt that accompany the dish. My grandmother made these kinds of thick potato chips, but she never dredged them in capers. Both these dishes are served on original Delmonico's plates (Delmonico's was NYC and America's first fine dining restaurant that opened in 1837) that Torrisi bought six of at auction.

Ricotta gnocchi is the only thing on the menu that is also served on the $60 menu, but here it gets a more whimsical treatment, served with edible "leather" straps, though Torrisi says the straps that are served on the side are a little too tough to eat. (The leather is ground instant coffee, caramel, pectin, gellan, and tobacco water.) Cute? For sure. Memorably delicious, I'm not convinced.

Torrisi's dad is a court reporter in downtown New York courts, so it was at lunches with his Dad that he fell in love with Chinese food. The most Chinese of the dishes, Cantonese lobster, is served with lobster broth, chive blossoms, ginger, scallion, pork, fermented black beans, egg, bread crumbs all in a decidedly non-Asian Carbonara-like sauce. A little too busy and a little too cross-cultural for my taste, but indisputably delicious.

Back to the hood with Sunday supper, a beef ragu made with meat that's been dry-aged for 24 to 30 days, served with beef "ricotta" (actually rendered beef fat, with tapioca maltodextrin helping it achieve that texture) and homemade semolina twist bread. No utensils necessary, you use the bread to scoop and eat. They do offer you tiny silver spoons to make sure you get every morsel of the ragu.

Tomahawk cut of lamb (developed by Pat LaFreida) has a Manischewitz glaze, Jerusalem artichokes, macerated Concord grapes that taste like popsicles, fried mint and celery. It's presented quite ceremoniously with a smile before being sent back to the kitchen to be carved. It is also served with deer antler knives. The loin is very lamb-y; the other meat is deckle meat, closest to the rib bone, it tastes beef-like. Taken as a whole, this dish is big fun with big flavors that make perfect sense.

And bitter greens served with a bitters vinaigrette is a nifty palate-cleanser, its distinct bitterness preparing your palate for the array of sweets coming your way.

Check out all the dishes in the slideshow »

Most decidedly not your childhood bakery's cheese danish, this version is Torrisi's riff on the cheese course. A buttery, flaky housemade danish comes studded with crushed bits of black walnut, and then topped with preserved Brooklyn figs and cheese from upstate. The danish would merely be funny and diverting if it wasn't so delicious and powerful. Italian Ice is another old Torrisi touch, a paper cup full of Granny Smith ice for palate cleanser number two.

A three component dessert: a maraschino float made with housemade maraschino cherry soda sucked up with an edible evaporated milk straw is clever and funny, but doesn't quite deliver what the visual suggests; there's a funny and resonant malted root beer candy bar that has a distinct malty taste with a pleasant root beer finish; and sour cherry vanilla ice cream with pretzel breadcrumbs that was so good I wished I could have taken a pint home.

Finally, the cookie-pastry plate features a combination of old Torrisi favorites and some new ones developed for the tasting menu: the winners for me were the coffee cake with a layer of vincotto fig jam, the fresh ricotta mini-cannoli with orange zest and fennel, and (taking home the gold medal) the salt water taffy with bonito flake and dried seaweed. Sounds weird, but when you bite into it, it makes perfect sense. In general the sweets don't rise up to the level of the rest of the meal, but I must admit I will never forget the saltwater taffy.

Torrisi, his talented crew, and his surprisingly polished servers succeed in creating a different kind of tasting menu experience. They quietly but resoundingly showed us their chops in clever but convincing ways, while keeping a sense of humor about every bite. The ability to laugh at themselves, and share the joke with diners, is a rare one. Taste buds and humor have rarely been so closely aligned.

Check out all the dishes in the slideshow »

Curious to try yourself? Torrisi tells us that to make a reservation for the tasting, you have to call our receptionist from 9-5 Mon-Fri and book a table; they take bookings 30 days out. They serve anywhere from 8-14 people a night this menu.

Torrisi Italian Specialties

250 Mulberry Street, New York NY 10012 (map)