Say what you want about Major Food Group, comprising Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone, along with their partner, Jeff Zalaznick, who’ve opened a conglomerate of restaurants across the globe — many of them named after themselves. Let’s face it: They’re long on appeal, or they wouldn’t be doing so well.
Maybe it’s because they make restaurantgoers feel like they belong, that they’re part of an exclusive New York set (if only for a night). It’s a thrill to score a reservation at Carbone. A lucky few can afford to dine at the Grill in the former Four Seasons, or can pay thousands of dollars for a members-only New York branch of ZZ’s Club.
Perhaps Major Food Group restaurants are well-liked because they’re quite good: Deep pockets and culinary training allow them to tend to details the way few restaurant groups can, procuring top-of-the-line ingredients and assembling a dining room that’s just so. That’s in line with what New York Times food critic Pete Wells says in his recent three-star review of Torrisi Bar & Restaurant, in which he also points out that it may well be “polarizing” for its size, the expense, and the noise, as well as the fact that on his visits, the front-of-house employees were primarily men.
Torrisi first opened in 2010 as a sandwich shop by day and a prix fixe restaurant at night before closing in 2015. In its comeback, now in the Puck Building, the menu has an Italian throughline, referencing the first restaurant from Torrisi and Carbone, but also has nods to Vietnamese, Chinese, Jewish, and Jamaican dishes.
The staff at Eater New York decided to dine at Torrisi and try it for ourselves.
Luke Fortney: When I first walked in, I saw meats hanging in a glass case, four hosts at the stand, and a man in a puffer jacket and Sperrys, and I wondered if I had overdressed.
Emma Orlow: There was the woman in a gold sequin coat.
LF: And then there was a dog at the bar —
Robert Sietsema: A very big furry dog, and not the kind of lap dog that you can carry around!
EO: I don’t think I’ve ever been to a restaurant with a doorman. That sets the tone. I’m sure they do have walk-in seats, but you have to know what you’re walking into. And it very much makes you feel like, from the get-go, this is something exclusive. And none of you will believe me, but I did see Jerry Seinfeld walk to the back!
[The restaurant is buzzy and warmly lit. In the bar area, booths are positioned across the room from blocks of standing tables where people order drinks and eat food that doesn’t require utensils. If you’re sitting at a booth facing the kitchen, the chef and general manager stand to the right.]
RS: Well, the doorperson is more of a bouncer because they want to keep out anyone who doesn’t “belong” there.
Melissa McCart: I feel like it’s becoming more of a thing — I know of a handful of restaurants that have doormen — but the question is, why?
RS: You’re in class warfare via restaurants.
For starters, we ordered Italian and American hams with zeppole ($23), charred clam boule ($12), chopped liver with Manischewitz ($19), sliced Boars Head on rye ($17), and the kitchen sent out cucumbers New Yorkese ($18).
EO: I was really expecting to hate the chopped liver because I didn’t need Major Food Group’s take on Manischewitz, but I thought it was pretty fun.
RS: There was something weirdly joking about it compared to the seriousness of the other dishes. Nevertheless, it was a well-conceived dish. It wasn’t at all like Jewish deli chopped liver. It was a French puree of liver with gelatin on top. They’re playing all sorts of games here that probably go over the head of most diners — like the Boar’s Head reference and an actual boar’s head [the animal] terrine, which didn’t have the kind of richness that one might have hoped for. The cucumbers were refreshing, and maybe the best dish.
For the second course, we opted for escarole and endive salad ($22) and octopus nha trang ($32), followed by linguini in a pink Manhattan clam sauce ($28) and spaghetti with lamb amatriciana ($27). For a main course, we split duck alla mulberry ($54) and rotisserie porchetta ($41). We didn’t order dessert.
RS: Pastas should be abundant, but these were not. And they were very rich pastas, but not particularly flavorful.
LF: I think I would skip the pastas next time. Weirdly, the most Italian part of the restaurant was the least memorable part of the meal. I just can’t explain why you would sub lamb for pork in an amatriciana. The joy of that dish is gnawing on bits of jowl — but then you have a fork-tender piece of lamb going into your mouth.
EO: They came up to us and were like, “We have this like off-menu pasta that we only tell certain people who seem adventurous,” and obviously they knew you worked at Eater, Melissa. [ENY editor Melissa McCart made the reservation on Resy.] But how do they otherwise guess who’d want that?
MM: What did you think of the mains?
RS: They were fiendishly expensive. As for the porchetta, it’s supposed to have crisp skin wrapped around it. This was kind of like meatloaf. It was not the beautiful denuded bronzed slice of rolled pork around fennel and garlic.
MM: I loved the duck. I would have loved a mulberry sauce that was a bit looser and luxurious. (Or maybe I’m being greedy.)
LF: If I were to return, I honestly think I would have leaned in fully to their allusions to other cuisines — no Italian fare.
EO: The Italian ices were pretty cute. [Dropped off at the end of every diner’s meal, they were one of the few self-referential items that mirrored the end of a meal at the original Torrisi Italian specialties.]
LF: It’s a performative detail that Major Food Group is often known for. I loved that.
RS: Don’t forget the free cookies! You didn’t even have to order a dessert here.
LF: It felt like a rich, luxurious pampered experience that, as someone who mostly eats in Brooklyn and lower-priced restaurants, I’m not really used to. That said, I’m not sure this is a feeling I really crave too often. But it was novel.
RS: I found the place plenty stuffy, which was overwhelming. It was one of those restaurants where you’re supposed to get the feeling of being pampered but I almost felt pestered — especially given the fact that I felt the entire staff looked at me and they saw a giant dollar sign.
RS: As the evening progressed, the music got louder and louder. Do they think that nobody can enjoy themselves if they have to talk to each other?
LF: I feel like the effect was similar to watching a Michael Bay film at Alamo Drafthouse. You just can’t have a thought because the sound is so loud and someone is coming up to you trying to sell you queso and chips every other second.
Would you go back?
EO: They’re saying it’s Italian food that’s New York-inspired, which feels a bit try-hard when you know the owner is a wealthy white chef serving what they’re calling a Jamaican-style pasta with oxtail or his favorite Chinatown Vietnamese dish, in a building formerly owned by Jared Kushner, with all these expensive apartments upstairs. They could just have kept to the zeppole. As far as the food itself, I thought it was solid. And if you’re looking for a fancy night out, you do get bang for your buck here.
RS: They’re using top-quality ingredients. Even in the Vietnamese octopus, the octopus was succulent and large. (I mean, this was a grandfather octopus, probably the head of the Octopus Association that they managed to murder to make this dish!) [We were told the dish was inspired by Nha Trang One on Baxter Street — a Torrisi favorite, according to our server.]
MM: I wonder whether other people felt like there was a swarm of bees at their table. If everything were just a little bit more fluid and less transactional, I would have appreciated that. That said, it’s an interesting restaurant and I want to go back.
EO: if you were all to give this restaurant a rating between one and 10, what would you give it?
MM: For this visit? Around seven. Great ingredients.They’re absolute pros, but I feel like because they are, they can create a better overall experience.
RS: They just have a different concept of what dinner should be.
EO: I was gonna say seven. I think for the people who are the target customers of Major Food Group at this point, none of the intricacies of the food matter as much.
LF: I don’t think it was as expensive as I expected, which is maybe a hot take. I think the price of eating out at these fancy Manhattan restaurants really has become like $100 a person now if you buy an appetizer, a drink, a main, and then tip accordingly.
RS: A seven. Their empire is based solidly on retrograde Italian American cooking, making it not only much more expensive but also a little better than average. Torrisi is an attempt to step a little outside the mold, but using some of the same tropes of success, and it appears to be working.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.