"Carbone," Sutton said immediately. Devotees of Torrisi Italian Specialties and Parm stampeded Carbone when it opened last March, frantic to bask in the midcentury red-sauce swankness reimagined by Mario Carbone, Rich Torrisi, and Jeff Zalaznick. "I'm suspicious that it's a fake," said Sietsema. "The prospect of eating Italian-American food in a restaurant that costs threefold over, say, Bamonte's or Frost in Williamsburg doesn't appeal." Sutton countered: "It's a refined version of the Italian-American food I grew up eating on Long Island. I dig it."
Which is how we found ourselves recently together again, shouting to be heard while Dean Martin's voice bounced overhead and our slicked-haired server in a burgundy tux flambéed bananas Foster for a nearby party of ten. The trippy quality of Carbone's interior is a portal to Little Italy in a parallel, cinematic universe. A scene in The Godfather inspired the black-and-white patterned floor. The walls are the otherworldly blue of Mystique's skin in the X-Men movies. Film director Julian Schnabel's son, Vito, organized the art on the walls: Irreverent images of Michelangelo-like busts with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths, or pictures scrawled with aphorisms such as "A black-out is nature's way of sparing me the embarrassment," are the only overt visual clues that an archetype is being toyed with.
The tinkering in most cases is triumphant. What's particularly fun about Carbone is that it doesn't simply pay homage to the red-sauce palaces that simmered their way into popular culture fifty years ago. It also winks at midcentury Continental cuisine and explores the ways the two genres overlapped. Gigantic, pricy, nuanced versions of Italian-American standards populate the menu: baked clams, minestrone, lobster Fra Diavolo, veal Marsala. But a retro Palm Springs coolness informs the meal, too. Cocktail clichés get chic makeovers. Chartreuse gives the rum daiquiri a femme-fatale edge; whiffs of rosemary turns a potent Gibson martini into a harbinger of the herb-rich dishes soon to fill the table.
In his thick, Old-World baritone, the server confirms our order and then brings out pre-dinner snacks, including stalactites of Parmesan and logs of delightfully oily "Grandma bread" painted with thin, clingy tomato sauce and oregano. Much of the food substantiates Sutton's praise. Baked clams in three variations begin playfully (oreganata-style with fluffy, herbaceous bread crumbs) and then go luxe, with lardo subbing for bacon on the "casino" variation and the third riff topped with sweet uni. Rigatoni has an appealing slipperiness that verges on gluey—a quirky quality that separates Italian-American pastas from the homeland. It comes in a tomato-vodka sauce with chile to magnify the subtle heat from the spirit. Mario Carbone crisscrosses Italian and Continental with his Ribeye Diana, a lofty spin on steak Diane in a jus that hints of cacciatore with pancetta, rosemary, and tomato paste. Warm, crisp-soft croutons complete a silky, piquant Caesar salad.
A couple of misses threaten to disrupt the restaurant's silver screen dreaminess. We each disparage the plate-size veal parmesan—the meat under a luxurious gloss of cheese and sauce is undeniably bland. Gemelli DiMaggio, named of course for the legendary baseball player, uses frilly west coast Dungeness crab (Joe DiMaggio hailed from San Francisco). At this time of year, though, East Coast blue crab is at its sweetness: Why not rename the dish and use it instead?
The ending saves the show. The flames surge for our own bananas Foster, ginger icing nudges carrot cake into an exotic realm, and we sip limoncello and grappa brought to the table as part of the meal's conclusion. Two of us leave convinced, the third validated.
Robert Sietsema's Take
I was prepared to be nonplussed by Carbone, if not actively hate it. I'd witnessed firsthand (from my vantage point at the sushi joint across the street) how the place had pirated the restaurant sign of the former tenant, Rocco, which had been a landmark on Thompson Street for almost a century. And Carbone's demeanor seemed actively snotty, at least from the accounts I'd read.
I was prepared to be nonplussed by Carbone, if not actively hate it.
But the restaurant's cramped and antique feel charmed me. The staff was freaky-retro, the place smelled of parmesan cheese, and a table of eight blondes sat next to us, flirting with their server and looking like they generally do have more fun.
As a fan of Italian-American food, I expected Carbone's renditions to be standard—and just offered in larger size servings, the way Il Mulino had done it for decades. Was I surprised! It was not really historical Italian-American fare, but that cuisine in collision with more modern notions of Italian food (from Italy itself) with modern American ideas. What Italian-American restaurant serves a Caprese salad with heirloom tomatoes and freshly made mozzarella? Carbone does it spectacularly.
The tableside Caesar was great, but so many places make an outstanding rendition that Carbone's didn't stand out. I can still taste the vodka rigatoni, a daringly plebian dish for Carbone to attempt. Only the tough veal parm was awful. With what had gone before, it should have been remarkable. We knocked back a spicy Rosso Conero Riserva from the Marche, a region of Italy where some provinces have D.O.C.G. designation and from where it's possible to fine a great bottle in a store at $20. Ours rang in at over $100, but it was almost worth it.
Ryan Sutton's Take
Carbone continues to be a place that I send out-of-towners. It's a quintessential New York restaurant you just can't find elsewhere (unless, alas, you're in Hong Kong, where the group has a second location). As I see it, every dollar an out-of-towner spends at Parm or Carbone or Torrisi is a dollar not thrown away on a tourist trap in Little Italy, at a crappy midtown steakhouse, or at Il Mulino.
Carbone's cooking represents something most Americans are familiar with-the huge, saucy, melty portions of Italian-American cooking—but at level of refinement, creativity, and technique that's more common for high-end French and Italian fare. This level of service and pampering is becoming relatively uncommon for an a la carte venue, though admittedly you still end up paying as much at Carbone as you do at a tasting menu restaurant: Dinner for three can easily exceed $500.
I don't buy the argument that Italian-American cuisine has to be cheap because it was born out of poverty—really, most cuisines were born out of poverty. And I like to think a victory for Carbone is also a victory for Alex Stupak's ambitious Mexican establishments, and every other so-called "ethnic food" restaurant pigeonholed into the culinary bargain bin.
But here's the thing: If a restaurant charges top dollar it has to render the best versions of these dishes.
But here's the thing: If a restaurant charges top dollar it has to render the best versions of these dishes. That was a damn fine steak Diane—it didn't taste dry-aged, but it had a gorgeous sweetness. Is the $55 veal parm the best I've had? No, not even close—though let the record state that I'm not a huge fan of chicken or veal parm in general. The flip side is that, during multiple separate visits to Carbone, I've encountered better veal Marsala than anywhere else -- and I've consumed my fair share of Marsala growing up on Long Island. Yes, the veal parm needs work. That aside, Carbone gets it right.
Photos by Bill Addison