Final Word: Standout Red Sauce Revival
Ambience: Old School Italian meets the Downtown Scene
Don’t Miss: Veal Parmesan, Posillipo Pan Roast, & Linguine with Clams
End With: Carrot Cake
There’s just something about a “red sauce” joint that feeds the soul more than any kind of restaurant imaginable. More so than even diner pancakes with maple syrup, a grilled cheese and fries, or a chocolate milkshake. I love going out to dinner and trying new restaurants (after all, I am a restaurant girl), but that often involves concepts that are a modern twist on a classic, like Modern Mexican, a fusion of two (or more) cuisines, or a purely Greenmarket play of seasonal, local eats. And a lot of the time that translates to polished plates full of imagination, but often lacking in the comfort department.
Rarely do you come across a buzzy, new restaurant that peddles in Veal Parmesan, Linguine with Clams, and Lobster Fra Diavolo. It sounds almost like a contradiction in terms, but Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi have made an art of Red Sauce Italian, and by doing so, have made Italian-American cooking hot. It all started with Torrisi Italian Specialties, which by day, was nothing more than a sandwich shop, albeit an excellent one, wheeling and dealing in Eggplant Parm, Heroes, Lasagna and the like. Come nighttime, this Soho shop morphed into a restaurant with one of the most exciting (and affordable) tasting menus in the city. Then came the more casual Parm with its diner-like vibe, doling out Baked Ziti with Meat Gravy, Pizza Knots, and Baked Clams. Of course, it’s not your typical brand of Italian-American cooking they’re serving up. It’s unapologetically more creative, the likes of Pizza Knots with Tomato Powder, Beet Negronis, and Spumoni Ice Cream Cake. And there’s plenty of other influences, too, including Jewish cooking, like Manischewitz-marinated Grilled Lamb Chops coated in Matzo as well as Chinese, like Fried Rice with Prosciutto.
Lobster Fra Diavolo
Their newest venture, Carbone, is like something straight out of Little Italy… only with much better food. I used to love going to Little Italy with my parents when I was young. My brother, sister and I would pile into the car and travel into the city from our home in New Jersey all in the name of Veal Parmesan, Shrimp Francese, Gnocchi and Rainbow Cookies. We’d end the evening at Ferraro’s for espresso and scoops of gelati. When I moved into the city post-college, I returned to Little Italy for dinner, but the neighborhood seemed to be shrinking and the restaurants sadly deteriorating.
Well, if you miss those days as much as I do, you can relive them at Carbone. The servers that once rattled off specials in thick, Italian accents in eateries all over Little Italy are back to serve you here. In fact, they could be the very same servers because chefs and owners Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi, along with owner Jeff Zalaznick, have hired the same, old-school waiters to rattle off daily specials, like Grilled Langoustines and Sea Urchin served in its shell. They’ll deliver you ribbons of prosciutto, tomato-rubbed focaccia, and chunks of parmesan before you even open your menu. They’ll tell you they can make you Lobster Fra Diavolo, Lobster Piccata, Steamed Lobster, or Lobster just about any way you like it. You’ll need weeks to conquer the vast menu, which you may want to consider attempting after you taste the Linguine Vongole (Clams). Talk about a killer dish! The linguine is cooked to al dente perfection and tossed with plenty of garlic, olive oil, herbs and white wine. Lest we forget the clams, which are a fantastic assortment of Montauk Littlenecks, Razor Clams, and Baby Clams from South Carolina — a textural playground for the tongue. Ooh, and there’s a wonderful Calamari Calamarata primi with pasta shaped like their namesake (calamari). Chefs Carbone and Torrisi also do justice to Veal Parmesan, which they serve on the bone. An extra thick cutlet, the veal itself is coated in breadcrumbs, smothered with a crazily addictive tomato sauce, and crowned with flash-fried basil leaves and fresh lobes of mozzarella.
There’s the more unusual dishes, like an Octopus Pizzaiolo, a combination more red sauce chefs should consider. The one here is abundant with moist, finely charred octopus and a vibrant sauce, made with fresh green chiles, garlic, onion, pimentos, and plenty of oregano. If you don’t like oregano, you should skip dinner at Carbone because it’s used in nearly everything on the menu to delicious effect. After all, this is a proper Italian-American joint. There’s Bass Oreganata, a fine Chopped Salad, Seafood Salad, Baked Clams and Chicken Scarpiello. Though if I were you, I’d order the Chinese Chicken, which is a cheeky name for a crispy Chicken Breast sauced in an Agrodolce (Sweet-Sour Sauce) of sorts.
The food is so satisfying at Carbone that I returned the next Friday evening for dinner and so did the table next to me. (That’s right, I sat next to the same couple two weeks in a row!) One of my favorite dishes second time around is an antipasti called Posillipo Pan Roast, which is a delicious mess of clams and mussels, bathed in a red pepper and Worcestershire sauce so good it requires soaking up with bread. We ordered Lobster Fra Diavolo, but what arrived was a whole lobster split in half (shell and all), cooked to a blissfully tender state, and topped with spaghetti, all of it sauced with an amply spicy diavolo sauce with plenty of red chile.
Carbone’s Carrot Cake
Save room for dessert because Carbone also makes a knockout Carrot Cake. In fact, I feel comfortable stating it’s the best damn Carrot Cake I’ve ever had. The server likened the cake’s curious shape to the Coliseum in Italy, but the shape is beside the point. Topped with a tangy cream cheese frosting, the cake itself is moist, yet dense, studded with raisins and shredded carrots. It comes with a scoop of Creamy Ginger Gelato, an unexpected touch that works surprisingly well with the cake. There’s a moist, rich Chocolate Blackout Cake that’s nearly as good as the carrot cake, and while you’ll be inclined to poo poo the idea of ordering half a grapefruit, you should ignore that gut feeling. Our very gruff Italian server declared his love for the dessert and so we pressed on. What arrived was a bruleed grapefruit, showered with fennel seeds and grapefruit peel, and topped with a cucumber mint sorbet, the perfect palate cleansing end to a heavy and heavenly red sauce meal at Carbone.