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Torrisi's Nicole Katz on the Lines, the Critics and Vegetarians

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Krieger, 07/19/10

In addition to bringing a distinctive new brand of Italian American cuisine to downtown Manhattan, Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone’s 20-seat Nolita restaurant Torrisi Italian Specialties introduced the city to one of its newest, longest waits for a table. Most nights, Nicole Katz is the one with the clipboard, taking down names and numbers, seating guests, and making sure everyone who is eating is enjoying themselves. She's been there for every step of the young restaurant's evolution from a small sandwich shop to one of downtown New York's hottest dining destinations. We recently chatted with Nicole about how to beat the line, how to serve a critic, and what's next for team Torrisi.

Nicole Katz, General Manager: I opened Del Posto with Mario, which is how we met, that kind of trial by fire of a restaurant opening, and then we became friends through that. And when he decided to do this project he asked me to join, back in August, actually. I was working on front of the house stuff, starting back then. So you and Mario had already been through the craziness of an opening before? Yes, exactly. On a very large scale, and a very loving, small scale. I hadn’t worked with Rich, I met Rich obviously through Mario, in the interim between Del Posto and here.

It's 8 PM on Saturday night. What's the wait for a table? There’s no way to really tell because it changes day to day, but on a Saturday by 8 o’clock, we’re probably taking names at that point for 9:30, best case scenario. Worst case scenario, 10:45. We’ll take the name, we’ll take the number, and we’ll tell them when to come back. We get a lot of people that are totally cool with it, especially our return customers, they understand that it’s not a big deal especially if you’re prepared for it. I think it's people that really have no idea about us that get the most frustrated with that response. But we do the best we can with it, we try and be as accommodating as we can, and we call you if a table comes up early. We’ll tell you when to come back, but if something else happens in the interim that will help get you seated earlier, we’ll do that. So, we try and make it as convenient as we can.

If someone asks you where to get a drink while they wait, do you have a place you recommend? We recommend Pulino’s, we recommend Eight Mile Creek, because it’s right next door and it's a kind of great little place to crash while you wait — those are probably the two places I recommend the most.

Is there anything I can do to make the wait shorter? Get here as early as possible. Especially with the summertime, if you’re here around 5:30, you’re guaranteed to be sat at 6, or 7:15, the absolute worse case scenario. How about gifts or cash to speed things along? You know, no fun cash, so far! We’re not against the idea, but no, no cash so far.

Tell us about your favorite customers. Any celebs? We’ve had our share of kind of ‘name people’ but it's definitely been culinary types of people. We’ve? had a lot of that so far. Our locals, people who live in the area, who’ve been coming since we were kind of this sleepy little place and no one knew what we were doing at dinner when we first opened. The people from the neighborhood who started coming in then are my favorite, because there’s a lot of people we know by name from the neighborhood at this point, even for dinner. They understand that it’s no big deal to put their name in and come back. And they can just go back to their apartment while they wait? Yes, exactly!

What's the most outrageous request from a customer that you could accommodate? I’ve got to say that we don’t have to accommodate that many requests. Having one menu and only a limited number of seats, the oddest thing is kind of that we don’t have to deal with crazy requests, because there’s nothing about us that lends its self to that. Customers kind of know that they’re in our hands, and that’s very unique from a service standpoint. So, it’s nice in that way.

Any requests that you couldn't accommodate? Because we have one menu every night, it makes it impossible for us to accommodate vegetarians and to accommodate a lot of allergies, because we just don’t have the space to have the separate stock of food. That’s the biggest thing, the inability to change the menu. I have to say that there’s been a surprising number of vegetarians who just eat around the menu. That’s when I really realized that there was something really crazy happening here, when I saw vegetarians say 'It’s okay, I’ll eat what I can.'

The New York review back in April made no mention of the line, but every article since has. Did that review have anything to do with the start of the crowds? A hundred percent, it started the day after the review came out. That was when the line started to happen, since then we’ve had a line, pretty much every day. We opened for dinner a few months after we opened for lunch, and people got used to us as a deli. And so, it was opening for dinner that made people like ‘What do you mean I don’t get a sandwich at nighttime?’ So, the review helped us solidify that ‘We are also a restaurant.’

The restaurant was put through the review gauntlet pretty early — what was that like? Were you able to identify the critics? I think every restaurant does their best to identify as many people as they can, and we definitely did our best, and definitely did well with identifying people when they came in. But at the end of the day you’ve really just got to do for them what we do for everybody else, which is really just what we tried to do consistently. I think that waiting on reviewers is just about doing what you’re doing for everyone else, which should already be a great representation of what the restaurant is, so that was our plan.

Was there any sense of relief after some of the final, big reviews came out? I think that’s kind of part of the end of the beginning of opening a restaurant, and by the end of the beginning of opening a restaurant, the tensions are high, but we definitely had our fair share of feeling like it was the last leg of opening this place. It becomes a different beast then. Now that that’s kind of over, we can focus on continuing to grow, and be a better restaurant, and do what we’re doing.

Is everybody in the kitchen happy with having 20 seats upstairs? I think it would always be nicer for everyone if we had a little more space and a little less of a wait, but I think the reason we are so small to start is so that they can pay that kind of attention to everybody. There’s quality control that comes with a small restaurant, that I think everybody still appreciates. Are there any expansion plans in the works? There’s all kinds of stuff?. Nothing definitive as of yet, but we’re trying to make things as convenient as we can.

A lot of restaurants do well, in part because they have a bar. Is that something you’ve thought about? Having a bar? Oh, certainly. And I definitely think it’s got to be somewhere in our future, because we would love to offer people the convenience of getting to stay in one place. We understand that it’s tough for everybody, we would love to offer that, and we’re doing what we can to figure that out.

Why is it called Torrisi, and not, like, 'Torrisi and Carbone'? I would definitely say that you will see something with Carbone’s name on it sometime in the future. They’re friends, and I can’t imagine that there won’t be something with Carbone on it at some point in the future.

How is Torrisi different from any other place you've worked? For me, as the kind of general manager, maitre d’on a nightly basis, captain and jack of all trades, it’s an amazing combination of everything I’ve done separately, at other places, in one job, at one time, at a crazy pace, every night. Sometimes, I’m talking to people at the door, calling people for the next seating, telling people about the menu, talking to the service staff, talking to the chef, expediting food — it’s crazy.

So on a given night, are you the one at the front with the clip board? Yes, I am. I’m here three to four nights and then Catherine, who’s our pastry chef, she runs the floor on the days when I’m not here. Everyone wears a lot of hats, but it’s a passion project for everyone.

· All Torrisi Italian Specialties Coverage on Eater [~ENY~]
· All Previous Editions of the Gatekeepers [~ENY~]

Torrisi Italian Specialties

250 Mulberry Street, New York, NY 10012 (212) 965-0955 Visit Website

Torrisi Italian Specialties

250 Mulberry St., New York, NY 10012-4163