inspired and thus restricted by CHOW, apologies on tense shifts
100 miles or more is a long way to travel for crazy delicious food cooked to perfection; but, according to some article whose whereabouts escape me, food focused vacations are on the rise. That spike is directly related to the increased popularity of things like foodie culture, artisanal dishes, and the need to bask in the presence of the latest bad boy celebrity chef whose mug is as identifiable as Brad Pitt’s.
Few cities are worthy of such a commute, and it stands as no surprise that New York City is one of them. Great restaurants dot the five boroughs of this metropolis like acne pocked Jessica Simpsons face back in the day (hell – it’s probably still there). Heck, great restaurants are seemingly ubiquitous, so getting noticed is a tough job. While other cities are consumed in food trucks, deconstructed dishes, and burgers from a wannabe gastropub, NYC’s attention span is short lived and symptomatic of ADHD. Still, for those that do make waves, unctuous praise or a harsh scalding comes fast and furiously.
In 2010, Torrisi Italian Specialties, a quasi eponymous culinary mash-up, opened in New York’s Little Italy to the delight of critics and fans alike. A sammie shop/Italian deli by day, by night, this small-seat vestibule of an eatery morphs into a not so hidden gem of addictive flavors and OMG moments. At least, that’s what it did for me during my one meal there. Festooned with hanging charcuterie, open-faced pantries, and tiles … lots and lots of tiles, Torrisi seems like a gem.
By all accounts, Mario Carbone takes a back seat to Rich Torrisi in name only. Otherwise, the Café Boulud/Del Posto veterans seem equally vital to the symphony of flavors produced both day and night. While undoubtedly Italian in its origins, the [dinner] food at Torrisi comes with a most unique American sensibility. Borrowing from the multi-cultural melting pot of this country, Carbone and Torrisi will often usurp techniques, spices, and other ingredients from cultures not so closely related to Italian. And while Torrisi and Carbone aren’t quite the household monikers that are food fellows such as Keller, Bourdain, and Ripert, they certainly carry with them a certain panache and notoriety.
Some might not categorize Torrisi as a Haute Barnyard outfit, but I do and it wouldn’t be an egregious misappropriation of terminology if you did too. In that respect, local and organic are in the place of pomp and circumstance. And only the most ardent and militant interpreters of the locavore ideology should have a problem with Torrisi’s sourcing. While much of what Torrisi offers is found nearby, not all veggies and fish are raised fresh on the island of Manhattan.
By all accounts, Torrisi is an authentic Italian deli from 11a-4p. [As my sole visit took place during dinner, I would suggest you look elsewhere for any more details about that.] But by night, when soothed by the undulating light from the street and aided by the foodcentric banter of those expecting their forthcoming meal, Torrisi settles in as slick, calm after the storm Italian restaurant. While diners sit yearning for a surreal taste sensation, don’t be surprised if the cheerful anxiety becomes palpable.
Tucking into a seat at night is the result of both patience and perseverance. At least, it was when I visited back in March. At that time, you had to show up at 5 to get your name on the list for one of three offered seatings. It sounds like they will still take your number, but I’m not sure if the 5 o’clock lineup is still in vogue as they may have ditched the fixed seating schedule. Bottom line: inspect Torrisi’s policies page with care well in advance of your desired dinning night.
By the time our mealtime was upon us, I was thoroughly engrossed in the anticipation. As we sat down to our four course, $50/head prix fixe meal, I could have sworn my heart engorged itself on account of said anticipation. Needless to say, unless you are the most voracious of eater, you won’t go away hungry despite the meals disconcertingly affordable prices.
Soon after, we were greeted kindly by our server and there began our true introduction to the story of Torrisi. Come to find out, Mario and Rich are men of the people and much of their staff came with them from the low ranks of Del Posto and Café Boulud. Now that’s loyalty. And though some of the menu items are regurgitated from time to time, one thing seems sure: despite the claims of nearly everyone else who has written on Torrisi (and I do mean everyone), there is no “staple of the house.” Instead, there are a multitude of toothsome morsels that both come and go.
As we were lead through the subversively humorous menu and with only the entrée to debate, I began to realize just how much I really want to like this place. Soon after, me and my trio eating brigade began to munch on a little garlic toast and the night took off. Our table was eventually the arena for the game that is Torrisi. Covered with the now famous warm mozzarella in thistle cream, cucumbers “New Yorkese,” blackened mackerel with pickled eggplant, and the overtly comedic green eggs and lamb, I had to remind myself just how revelatory this experience was.
While not every bite of an antipasti was met with glorious and freewheeling abandon, not a single dish was anything close to inedible. I took great comfort in the buoyant resistance of the warm mozzarella, which when joined with the infused thistle cream and touch of nutty olive oil became a masterpiece. Don’t be afraid to slurp the remnants and sing its praises. Meanwhile, the green eggs and lamb defined playfulness and I’ll simply say that this would have been a piquant party in your mouth had you joined us for the meal.
Of all the dishes past and present, the mozzarella is perhaps most representative of this eatery’s ethos. Italian food is famous for its use of what is readily available, and in homage to that ideal, Torrisi makes much of its products in house. No importing here!
On to the house-made ricotta gnocchi with cauliflower and pine nuts. So soft that it cuts with a fork, it was a true high just before our meal’s only short coming. As the table was split evenly between John Dory Francese (get it?) and some Veal Pot Roast with Flag Sauces, I had the opportunity to nibble on both. The veal was mine and I ripped into it like you wouldn’t believe. A meltingly tender mouth feel, I couldn’t help but notice the momentarily slack jawed gentleman to my left who stares as it falls off the bone. The John Dory was redolent of that buttery goodness of any good Francese, so while not a particularly healthy dish, it was a nice adventure.
None of our entrées were piping hot and in fact, all were lukewarm. Annealed as if a metal sauté pan, something got mixed up in the kitchen. Still, these minor misgivings did little to dampen the thought that went into the construction of the menu.
Our meal came to a crescendo with an awesome little plate of Italian baked goods. While I found the cloyingly sweet cream puffs a little too full of gooeyness, bites of cannoli, tricolors, petite fours (for lack of a better term), and brittle were all successful.
More than once during our visit, I heard a squeal or two from a neighboring table. While nothing in the vocal octave of orgasmic Sally (hint: movies), if I could translate such bodily noises, I’d think these people had died and gone to heaven.
In my opinion, the food at Torrisi might not be conceptually decadent, but it is gutsy and oh so yummers … or yummilicious … or yummo … or perhaps the more reserved “yummy.” It wasn’t to die for and perhaps not historic either; but, yumminess dominated while the few underwhelming moments passed through my tummy without so much as a second thought.
Despite having napped during the day and having to listen to more than one furious burst of a taxi cab horn, I slept soundly in my kingdom for the week with no conception of the burden that was to befall me during this digital journal scribbling. After dreaming extensively, the next morning I seemed inspired to declare “I have seen God, and it came in the form of sinful, conjured up images of Torrisian mastery.” While my more mundane sensibilities prevent me from equating my meal to that of Greek ambrosia, the rest of the day was spent face-planted in my laptop, refreshing my browser for the earliest possible glimpse of Torrisi’s next terrific song. Thankfully, I had Sancho for moral support.