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Team Carbone on Ironic Food and Building an Empire

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 Mario Carbone, Rich Torrisi, Jeff Zalaznick
Mario Carbone, Rich Torrisi, Jeff Zalaznick
Photo: Daniel Krieger

In the concluding portion of this interview with Jeff Zalaznick, Mario Carbone, and Rich Torrisi (see part one here), the team talks about ironic restaurants, how Carbone reflects Mario's personality and Torrisi Italian Specialties reflects Rich's, how to avoid making Carbone seem like a theme restaurant, and their goals for the future. Here's the interview:

Would you call your restaurants ironic?
JZ: Not at all. We are trying to celebrate a version of dining that we all love and admire.
RT: We felt it needed some love.
JZ: There wasn't a place to experience it in the way we envisioned someone experiencing it.
MC: We have very real, very fond memories of growing up in these restaurants.
RT: This is who we are. It's not a theme.
MC: I didn't pull a concept out of my ass. Ironic is not what we want.
JZ: We've eaten these dishes hundreds of times since we were ten years old. I think a lot of New Yorkers have, since I think this is one of the true New York cuisines.

Had you cooked these dishes before getting into Carbone?
MC: No. Often enough, it was the first time I was doing these things. It was me and Rich at Torrisi on off hours starting out the ideas. The three of us would work on the menus. Jeff has a huge say in the food here, which isn't always the case with a restaurateur. He knows the food almost better than we do stylistically for this restaurant. He really gets it. We worked on the menu for a long time, and eventually we were banging out lots of dishes and all sitting down for tastings. We would have three or four a week, and I'd force these guys to eat a ridiculous amount of food. We just chomped away at it. The menu started huge, bigger than what it is now, believe it or not.
RT: But yeah, those were the first times we were really cooking chicken scarp. The first week, hearing those orders come into the kitchen, was so cool. I had eaten these things so many times with my parents, sometimes horrible versions, and now we were doing it in our restaurant. We would always joke at Café Boulud with Carmellini that we were one day going to cook Italian-American cuisine, because it was a joke in many ways.

I mean, are all of them horrible? Don Peppe is pretty damn good.
RT: There's places. We love Don Peppe, yeah.
JZ: We love it.
RT: But a lot of it is going there. A lot of it is walking through the door after you've taken that drive. And we hope some of that will happen here as the years go by and this place gets ingrained.
JZ: It's about the experience. Being such a food-focused company, we spent a lot of time focusing on the experience here. We want that feeling when you go into a place like Don Peppe. We want you to come in and feel like you're part of a space that we created.

Does the fact that one restaurant is named Torrisi and the other is named Carbone mean that one reflects Rich more and the other Mario?
MC: 100 percent. No one's ever asked us that, actually.
RT: It evolved on its own. At the beginning, at Torrisi, we were there making food every single day. We had to negotiate with each other and figure things out. Now that Mario is gone and this is open, Torrisi has become more me.
MC: We sit in on each other's meetings, but we can't be at both places at the same time. We decided to divide and conquer in this way. It's interesting how the restaurants have developed in this way. This place is very much my personality, and Torrisi is very much Rich.
JZ: There's still plenty of involvement across the restaurants, but the sensibilities at each is very different. I find that really humorous.
MC: We could be doing the same dish one night — me at Carbone and him at Torrisi — and they could turn out completely differently. Mine is more of the past, his is more futuristic.

Rich, can you talk about what you're doing at Torrisi? Would you say it's progressive or "futuristic," like Mario just referred to it?
RT: I mean, creative is always a part of it. It's not molecular, even though there's a lot of those techniques. We just try to do it in a way where you can't see it on the plate. It's really about doing something a little bit different with these ingredients and ideas that have been around for a while, as well as adapting to that space.
JZ: One thing I don't think people realize is how much time we spend trying to evolve Torrisi. Torrisi is never done. It's never going to stay as one thing. There's been a lot of change there, even in the last year.

And the kitchens are a lot different.
RT: It's like a cult [at Torrisi]. Everyone is working in an extremely difficult environment. It's really hot down there, there's no space, you have to come up the stairs to bring out dishes.
JZ: It's nice to have these two restaurants now and to juxtapose them. At Torrisi, there's one thing on the menu, the portions are small, and the answer is always "no." At Carbone, there's 100 things on the menu, the portions are huge, and the answer is always "Yes." I think it's great we have both of them and I think they accurately represent the personalities of Rich and Mario.

Another thing I wanted to bring up was how to avoid having Carbone be a theme restaurant. Several of the waiters, for instance, come from places like Cipriani. How do you manage to avoid making it all seem like a schtick?
MC: You ever see Jon Gruden's QB Camp? Jeff did captain camp. It was one of the funniest things I've ever seen, watching the guys rehearse here.
JZ: We wanted them to feel right. We spent time on that. I think you run the risk of it being a schtick, but I think it's worse to have a hipster waiter with an attitude that comes to your table.
RT: That hipster might know more about food, but it just wouldn't be right.
JZ: There's a fine line between authenticity and schtick, and I think finding guys that are authentic to what we are doing here is what the goal is.
RT: The age is important. They are mature.
JZ: These are lifers who have been doing this for a really long time. We get as many positive comments about the waiters as we do about everything else. People will come back and ask to be in specific sections.

How have you felt about the review process so far?
MC: It's part of putting yourself out there. You have to take it as it comes. The reviews have been polarizing so far, for sure. Some people have completely loved it, some haven't. But we measure the success of this restaurant based on how happy people are when they walk out and how often they come back. We've been doing well with that, I think.
RT: No one wants to be talked shit about. But the more you deal with that, the easier it gets to just keep going it. It stinks, but it's part of it. You don't ever want to hear anything negative, but you have to understand that you are putting yourself out there and that you will be criticized. And we pay attention and make sure that we're working to make it better.
JZ: We remain positive, but of course, we pay attention and sometimes agree with certain criticisms.

Finally, looking forward: what do you want to achieve here?
MC: Rocco was here for 90 years, and there are still restaurants like that around, but I'm not sure how many will be passed down to the next generation. We're still pretty young, so we'd like to fight to keep this here and to make it stand the test of time.
RT: We want this to be a classic at some point.

· Part One: The Road to Carbone [-E-]
· All Carbone Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Eater Interviews [-E-]

Parm

248 Mulberry Street, Manhattan, NY 10012 (212) 993-7189 Visit Website

Torrisi Italian Specialties

250 Mulberry Street, New York, NY 10012 Visit Website

Carbone

49 Collins Avenue, , FL 33139 Visit Website

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