Nothing dulls my appetite more than hype.
It makes me suspicious, for example, when members of the press tweet weekly (nightly?) from a restaurant’s table, raptured to the point of incoherence. I suppose the enthusiasm is endearing. But what could be that good?
I take no issue with the media doting on its darlings. Everyone has their favorites. But clinging to the point of cloying can be a curse, building unattainable expectations that leave both restaurateur and diner disappointed. Worse, it can create monsters.*
And it was this kind of frothing at the mouths for chefs Mario Carbone’s and Rich Torrisi’s restaurant, Torrisi Italian Specialties in New York’s Lower East Side, that kept me from it for so long. Well, that and the difficulty of getting a table.
So, instead of trying to claw my way in, I decided to avoid the whole situation until everybody calmed the eff down.
* * *
But my attitude is irrational. My approach is flawed. I’ll be the first to admit it.
There’s no reason to avoid a restaurant just because the media shamelessly cheers it on. Hype usually happens for a reason. I’m just reluctant to wade through it.
So, when my friend Soldier told me that he had snagged us a table at Torrisi Italian Specialties in early February, I didn’t resist. Actually, what Soldier got us was one of the few tables that are reserved nightly for the chef’s tasting menu, a 20-course dinner for $125. At the time, “Torrisi 2.0,” as folks were calling it, was a relatively new offering, an alternative to the regular, 7-course prix fixe ($65).** Here is what we had:
Pumpernickel, dill pollen.
Mackerel Aqua Pazza
Coach Farms Goat Cheese Gnocchi
Vermicelli, poached lobster, fermented black bean dust, and scallion.
Dry-aged ground beef, sesame roll.
Manischewitz glaze, agrodolce, grapes.
Fig marmalade, fresh sliced figs.
Lemon Italian Ice
Apple Cider Fritters
Pine-Nut Biscotti Sandwiches
Vin Santo Cakes
Butternut Squash Custard
Celery Cake with Grape Jelly and Peanuts
Pizelle Cannoli with Salvatore Filling
Sesame Saltwater Taffy
* * *
Torrisi takes you to a different era.
Partially, it’s the neighborhood, populated by extras from “Gangs of New York,” bearded and plaid. I believe they’re called hipsters.
Partially, it’s the restaurant, a cozy little box with lace curtains, a tin ceiling, and shelves lined with canned goods. It too looks like something from the Five Corners a hundred-some years ago.
And then there’s the food, which takes you back in time with just as much caricatured authenticity, resurrecting the past with inventive license, like with a pair of escargots casino. It’s a mash-up; a flavorful couple you’d be hard-pressed to find apart now, let alone together back then. Yet, here it was, more yesterday than today.
* * *
Setting the time travel aspect of the restaurant aside for a moment, let me tell you what I loved most about Torrisi 2.0: it paid tribute to your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, the immigrants that made this country so deliciously diverse.
Of course, being primarily an Italian restaurant, there was aqua pazza (with a very clean strip of mackerel, served raw), gnocchi (a clever double entendre showcasing both Coach “leather” and goat cheese), tangy Italian ice (lemon, to clear away the lamb and beef that came before it), and a jadite carousel of petits fours that included cute little pizelle cannoli and a take home box of tri-colored cookies.
But there also came Cantonese lobster with vermicelli and scallions, and “chicken cashew,” two fried nuggets rolled in chopped nuts. I’m not sure Chinese immigrants would have served them on century-old sterling spoons from Tiffany & Co., like they did at Torrisi. But, like those escargots casino, they were an evocative approximation, no more or less the cultural adaptations invented by immigrants (and beloved by Americans) in their new homeland, unapologetic and delicious.
* * *
The buckwheat crêpes, rolled with crème fraîche and caviar and served on a bed of toasted kashi, clearly belonged to the Russians. And the lamb, presented on the bone, table side, glazed with Manischewitz, definitely belonged to the Jews (with “bitter greens” served on the side, I’d know it even if the menu didn’t tell us so).
But what about those “Brighton Beets,” served with pumpernickel and dill? Were they a wave hello to the Russians (who still heavily populate that oceanside stretch of Brooklyn dubbed “Little Odessa”) or the Jews, or Russian Jews? Who cares? I loved them, bright and dewy, a beautiful start to our meal.
I have no idea to which ethnic group the “Cheese Danish” should be assigned, a fluffy mattress spread with fig marmalade and paved with a fatty fromage, sweating a funky flavor. All I know is that it was, quite possibly, my favorite dish of the night. We were presented with the whole, served half, and offered seconds. We cleaned house.
* * *
In any other restaurant, the Torrisi 2.0 menu might come off as confused, a poorly pitched pot luck on Ellis Island. But, here, Torrisi’s costuming, however affected it may have seemed at first, seamlessly stitched up the story, sewing a sepia-soaked reminder of our past. Where else might period plates from Delmonico slip onto the table with such little notice?*** At alinea, just this stunt was jarring, albeit aimed at a different effect.
But here, foie gras Newburg and steak tartar (made from the Delmonico cut – eye of the rib eye) with bearnaise seemed perfectly normal, even if they weren’t original masterpieces. Lobster Newburg? Yes. But who’s ever heard of foie gras Newburg? Steak tartar? Yes. But spherefied bearnaise (to make it look like an egg yolk)? These were the culinary equivalents of I.M. Pei’s glass pyramids, classical in form, but otherwise modern in the making, set against an aged and august backdrop. Wonderful, both of them. The French would be proud.
* * *
I have one criticism. And it’s not about the cooking. Everything we had was spotless, especially that lamb, which was so tender, so juicy. And that Sunday Supper sugo (or was it a ragu?), served with nothing but a heel of bread for the sopping, was absolutely perfect, the meat particularly flavorful and delicate. It melted in my mouth.****
It’s not about the service either, which was pretty great, despite the fact that our server seemed to have a case of the nerves. The poor guy was a bit shaky at the start, calming down by mid-meal.
If there was one thing that I thought could use a little tightening, it was the “bar snacks” portion of the meal, which attempted to recreate a cocktail hour experience. While I really liked the majority of those beginning bites – especially the chicken cashew and the blini with caviar with roasty, toasty kashi – the two trompe l’oeils were misfits, and not particularly delicious.
There was a quail egg, somehow dyed black as coal, made shiny as obsidian, passed off as an “olive.” I understand the olive’s place at a cocktail party, but didn’t understand how a quail egg substitution made this dish anything more than merely a parlor trick. And those “sable cigarettes,” two strips of gnoccho frito wrapped in smoked sable, dipped in cod roe, and served in an ash tray of poppy seeds, verged on tacky humor. Sure, thematically, cigarettes are a natural prop in a bar scene. But, if they were aiming to lighten the mood, I think they may have overshot the laugh on this one. It came off as a prank.
* * *
I absolutely loved that our meal ended in a soda shop, something unmistakably American, incapable of being claimed by any one comprising culture, and yet, the sum of them all. Like a page from the Saturday Evening Post: a marischino cherry float, with root beer and a candy “straw.”
I’m still not convinced that there’s a single restaurant worthy of the ravings of the fad-mad media, oft rabid with praise. But, dinner at Torrisi Italian Specialties certainly didn’t dent the credibility of any.
Carbone and Torrisi were just knighted Best New Chefs by Food & Wine. Congratulations, gentlemen. Well done. Thanks for the thoughtful tour of New York, and our America, legs astride among its many cultures, a new colossus.
Torrisi Italian Specialties
250 Mulberry Street
New York, New York
* Tangentially, Alan Richman, writing for GQ Magazine, was pushed to explore the role food journalists, like him, have played in shaping restaurant personalities.
** The “Torrisi 2.0” chef’s tasting menu is only offered for a couple of tables each night, and they must be reserved in advance. Call the restaurant for more details.We had dinner at Torrisi Italian Specialties in early February, not a week after Pete Wells dropped a glowing two-star review on its sister restaurant, Parm, next door.
*** To be honest, I’m not sure that these plates were actually from Delmonico. But the conceit was clear enough.
**** If you think I’m over-thinking this meal, then consider the merits of the cooking.