REVIEW #20

Torrisi Italian Specialties

In mid-2010, when we first ate at Torrisi Italian Specialties, it was a sandwich shop by day and a tiny high-end four-course prix fixe restaurant by night, albeit with bare tables and paper napkins. The menu changed nightly, announced via a chalkboard. Maddeningly, you had to arrive at about 5:00 p.m. and proceed to wait in line for an hour at the door in order to be able to secure a spot for the evening with the clipboard-wielding staff member who appeared at the door to take down names for the night’s slots. You were then stuck in the neighborhood for the next two hours while you waited on your reservation time. It was a colossal waste of time and very inconvenient to diners. Those bizarre features were redeemed by the quality of the cooking, however, and the reasonableness of the prices. We were served dishes such as fresh house-made mozzarella and garlic bread, grilled octopus with a Sunday salad, tripe cacciatore, german gnocchi with corned beef ragu, atlantic john dory with progresso buttons, and house pastries. It was uniformly outstanding and the proprietors’ culinary pedigree – Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi spent years cooking at Café Boulud, wd~50 and Del Posto – showed. 

Much has changed since that time, all for the better. The restaurant underwent a substantial renovation that managed to reduce the seating even further by adding a handsome island workstation in the center of the room. The intimate setting is now quite elegant while managing to retain some of its original rusticity. The daytime deli function has been delegated to a new restaurant next door called Parm. Mercifully, Torrisi now accepts reservations. And while the classic four course prix fixe, which includes a selection of four antipasti, a pasta, a choice of meat or fish and a cookie plate, is still in place, there is also now a more elaborate Chef’s Tasting Menu that includes as many as 20 courses. It is on the quality of this menu that the restaurant has earned its ranking.

The Chef’s Tasting Menu is an absolute tour de force, one of the ten most ambitious in the city. It has been described as a gastronomic tour of New York City that veers all over the culinary map: Italian and American, obviously, but also French, Yiddish, Greek, Chinese, Jamaican and Spanish. It is no accident that the restaurant is located at the intersection of Little Italy, the Lower East Side and Chinatown. In preparation, Carbone and Torrisi read William Grimes's Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York and Judith Choate and James Canora’s Dining at Delmonico's: The Story of America's Oldest Restaurant for inspiration and spent short stints at René Redzepi’s Noma in Copenhagen and Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck in Berkshire, England, both widely considered to be among the top ten restaurants in the world.

The meal begins with a number of small “bites”, such as the Sable Cigarette – gnocco fritto. The Italian fried-dough pocket, which is wrapped in smoked black cod, is shaped like a cigar and has been dipped in the cod’s roe (to evoke the glowing tip of a lit cigar) and in poppy seeds (to evoke ashes). It’s served on a vintage Stork Club ashtray. That’s the kind of creativity and whimsy that you can expect throughout the duration of the meal, although it’s important not to gloss over the fact that the food is also delicious. Other small bites include a delicious oyster on a half shell, a buckwheat caviar knish, Chinese cashew chicken oysters, and escargot casino. In homage to Delmonico’s, two dishes are served on actual Delmonico’s servingware: a torchon of foie gras with toast points and a sublime steak tartare with béarnaise. In our view, the best dish is the Lobster Cantonese, an ethereal mixture of flavors and textures. The “Jewish Lamb”, charred lamb ribs sweetened in Manischewitz, the semisweet Kosher wine, however, is a close second. The restaurant also offers a small number of orders of prime rib to prix fixe diners that call in advance that is not to be missed. The ambition of the wine list is not commensurate with that of the food, and we would love to see it expand its offerings in the future. In the meantime, the restaurant offers a reasonable $40 corkage fee. This hard to categorize restaurant is still very much in flux, evolving rapidly as Carbone and Torrisi get their legs, experiment, and refine where they want to take it.

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INFORMATION

Nolita
250 Mulberry St.
New York (nr. Prince St.)
212-965-0955
Tues-Wed, 11am-4pm, 6pm-10pm; Thurs-Sat, 11am-4pm, 6pm-11pm, Sun, 11am-4pm, 6pm-10pm
    Mario Carbone, Chef
    Rich Torrisi, Chef
    Dan Haar, Chef de Cuisine

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