Over the past five years, Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi have made names for themselves by applying a refreshing level of technique and innovation to the food they fell in love with as kids. Their cooking is meant to be a reminder that Italian-American food is not tired or reserved for the kinds of restaurants where an employee has to stand outside and plead for your business. Carbone and Torrisi first made these intentions clear at Torrisi Italian Specialties, a restaurant on Mulberry Street that in many ways was the Italian-American equivalent of a modern Parisian bistro: the space was small, the menu was prix-fixe, the price was low, and the cooking was impressive. The business opened quietly and ended up becoming one of the city's most relevant, and delicious, restaurants.
Torrisi and Carbone brought a similar approach to their follow-up Parm, a casual sandwich shop next door to Torrisi. This second project included the involvement of Jeff Zalaznick, who became the chefs' business partner after he fell in love with their food. More crucially, though, he came into the fold after he and the chefs realized that they both dreamed of opening the same restaurant. That place, Carbone, is now open on Thompson Street, in the space that formerly housed the red sauce classic Rocco. The three men see it as their take on mid-century Italian-American fine dining, a genre they feel hasn't gotten the love and attention it deserves.
In part one of this interview, Torrisi, Carbone, and Zalaznick talk about how they met, how they came up with the ideas for their restaurants, and how they react to those that criticize their newest venture.
Let's start by talking about how you guys met.
Mario Carbone: Rich and I met first at culinary school in 1998. We rekindled our friendship working at Café Boulud, became friends, and then roommates. At that point, we started to put together the pieces of leaving our jobs and doing something on our own. We both really wanted to do something on our own, because we got the point where we were frustrated about always doing it for somebody else. We wanted to be business owners, and the best way to do that, we realized, was to join forces.
Did you know what you wanted to do at Torrisi?
MC: This was '07, '08. We were working but playing around with ideas. We didn't know what we were doing. That's a big part of it. We were on our own. We didn't have anybody else. Jeff wasn't even in the picture yet. We had to figure out how to get the space, how to get the gas turned on.
Rich Torrisi: Raise money, deal with lawyers. We had never done anything like that, and we were suddenly doing it, and on our own.
If anyone did help, who was it?
RT: A lot of it came from our family and from people who had been a big part of our lives up until then. Most of it came from family and our closest friends, who had watched us since we were kids. Mario and I had cooked basically since we were teenagers. Our families had watched us work really hard, so they were big supporters. That was the cornerstone of getting started.
Did you think it was going to blow up like it did?
RT: It was the hope. What really helped is that we had been in the city a long time and we knew everybody else. We knew people who were doing things at the time, where they had worked, who they had worked for, what purveyors they used. So that gave us confidence. We just didn't ever think we would be able to do it on our own, basically. It's usually with investors and backers, which is what it's come to be for us. The homegrown thing in Manhattan is hard to find.
When you did start figuring out what Torrisi was going to be, what were you thinking about?
RT: We were obsessed with the idea of the New York deli. We thought that had sort of disappeared, but we remembered it from when we were kids. We were also obsessed with Little Italy as a neighborhood. We wanted to do something new but that was built into the frame of the past. We knew exactly what kind of storefront we wanted. But it took us two years to find that.
MT: We fell in love with the Torrisi space because we had recently lost Vesuvio. We were going after it for a while, and then we lost it. We were brokenhearted about that.
Why did that fall through? Not enough money?
RT: We had a little bit of money, but we were treated like kids. We weren't operators and we had barely enough money to do something. When any real operator — Birdbath, the guys who ended up taking it, were real operators — they were the obvious choice. There were like seven or eight people going for it, and we were at the back of the list, because no one knew who we were. That was disheartening, because we felt cast aside at a time when we were really passionate about doing something.
When do you come into the picture, Jeff?
Jeff Zalaznick: Probably about six months after they opened Torrisi.
MC: It was very soon after we started doing dinner, though. Really soon.
JZ: I had had some restaurant-related online businesses, which I sold, and i knew I just wanted to open restaurants. I came into Torrisi, and I was blown away.
RT: For a long time at the beginning, me and Mario would be upstairs cooking most of the food for the menu. Jeff would just approach us every time and start talking about food. The more and more he did that, the more we liked him and would start talking about food. We had a lot of similar opinions.
JZ: One time I called to make a reservation, and they asked me what I was doing after, because Mario wanted to talk to me. I said I was available, because I wanted to do something. I wanted to open restaurants and build a brand. We always talked after the meal, but this felt different. So, I came in, and he and I ended up going out to the Jane. We sat down for six hours and basically I talked about what Carbone is. I told him I wanted to open a restaurant like that, and he told me that's exactly what he and Rich wanted. This is before Parm, so it didn't happen straightaway, but that was the first business discussion we ever had, and it brought us here. It seriously felt like we had known each other forever.
As a way of talking about the idea for Carbone, give me the Cliffs Notes on what you discussed in that conversation.
JZ: It was this restaurant. It was about bringing back the quintessential mid-century Italian restaurant the three of us had grown up eating at. That restaurant, for the most part, had kind of been left behind and not given the care it deserved. It's the food we love to eat, and that New Yorkers love to eat, we believe, and it didn't get the attention it deserved. The idea of doing these dishes — chicken scarp, lobster fra diavolo...
RT: Italian food gets a tremendous amount of attention in New York, but Italian-American food doesn't get so much play at all.
JZ: So, what if you did veal parm and you cooked it perfectly? What if you did lobster fra diavolo and cooked it perfectly? What if you gave it the attention of fine dining? That was our first conversation.
How did you end up getting the space? Jeff, you've told me before that it's a misconception that you took this from the Rocco people. Why would you argue that's not what happened?
JZ: Yes, it is a total misconception. Basically, we were brought to this space by a landlord. We never had anything to do with the Rocco people. What happened was that we were in negotiations for the Parm space, and that went on for a really long time. It went on forever, so we had brokers start looking for other places in the neighborhood while that was going on. The landlord for this space was also the landlord for what is now Taim, on Mulberry, and he showed us that space. He mentioned in passing that he also had another space on Thompson Street. He said he had banks and pharmacies and other big tenants interested, but that he wanted to keep it a restaurant.
MC: Jeff told me he was coming to look at a space on Bleecker and Thompson. I opened Lupa when I was 19, so I immediately said, "Oh, shit, is it Rocco?"
JZ: This space stood for everything we wanted to do. We knew it was right. The idea of bringing that space back to life was perfect. The misconception is that we came in and said, "We're going to pay you more money, get out."
MC: And I'm gonna slap my name on the sign!
JZ: What happened was, in all honesty, that unfortunately, this restaurant was closing one way or another. What shocks me is that, given all the other things this could have become, you would think that someone that pays tribute to its history is the best use of it. It's not a Duane Reade. That's something that I think is a big misconception. We didn't kick them out. The landlord and Rocco had their own thing, and we never, never got involved with it. It's those details that some people forget.
I think the critics who read cynicism into you opening in the Rocco space also see it in the price of the food here. How do you react to that?
JZ: The reaction to the prices — we are not overcharging. We are using the best products available. The whole essence of this concept...
MC: It's thematically correct. To do fine dining in this style, it makes sense. We've looked through all of those old menus, we've gone to many of those restaurants, and we're trying to tell that story. The food is portion-appropriate to the time. If it was small, like at Torrisi, it wouldn't make sense. And because it's fine dining, you're using the best product. If you're doing that in today's market, that reflects a certain price. We're just trying to do it right within this style.
RT: To eat something in Little Italy, let's say a veal parm for $28, and then to eat it here with the wines that you're getting and the people that are working here, that is not the same. That cost goes directly into your experience.
MC: Your glassware, your plateware, your linens. This is fine dining, and that's what it costs.
JZ: Right, we could sell you a one-pound lobster and charge 40 bucks for it, but that just wouldn't make any sense. People would look at a fra diavolo like that, and it just would be odd. It would be a tiny portion. It has to be a certain size to tell that story, and it has to be of a certain quality so that we can do what we are trying to do.
Stay tuned for part two of Eater's conversation with Rich, Mario, and Jeff tomorrow.