June 2 (Bloomberg) -- Torrisi Italian Specialties might be Manhattan’s best Italian-American restaurant. True to form, they don’t shower their dishes with $100 white truffles from Alba. Rather, they use Progresso breadcrumbs. A can costs about $3 at your local supermarket.
Sound good? Go ahead and try it. Except there are no reservations, and there are no choices on the $50, eight-or-so-plate tasting menu save “meat or fish.” No substitutions for “vegetarians, children or dietary restrictions.” No hard liquor, but wine and beer. No bar to wait at; you leave your cell number and stand outside.
And you will wait. Around 20 minutes for an egg sandwich at lunch. Two hours for dinner at the 18-seat restaurant. (On Friday they told us three; we got lucky and only waited two.)
All this for a first course of garlic bread.
You sit on a bench and sweat. Or you walk two blocks down Mulberry Street to Little Italy, where mustachioed men lure tourists into restaurants hawking overcooked pasta and accordion music (“The Godfather” theme, of course). Those restaurants aren’t full. Torrisi is. It plays Michael Jackson. And those $3 breadcrumbs are awesome.
They coat an ethereal fry of nuggety veal sweetbreads. They lend crunch to a breast of Bell & Evans chicken, as well as roasted, rosemary-spiked cauliflower.
It evokes Momofuku Ko’s stripped down, rock & roll approach to fine dining, which is to say local and seasonal with a pinch of processed food, all in a no-tablecloth, no seat padding, prix-fixe-only setting. Like Ko, with its love-it-or-hate it online reservations system, Torrisi’s no-res policy will infuriate destination diners and enamor those who live two flights up.
Such are the ways of Torrisi, which comes courtesy of 30-year old Cafe Boulud alums Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone. They worked under Andrew Carmellini, who’s now running his own Italian-American shop down in Tribeca, the sprawling Locanda Verde. Locanda, along with restaurants like Frankie’s 457, represent very good Italian-American fare. Torrisi gives us three-star excellence.
There’s a moment in the film “Ratatouille” where the gaunt and jaded critic Anton Ego takes a bite of something and is instantly transported to his childhood, turning the miserable journalist into a tolerable human being. That’s how I felt upon sampling the garlic bread here. A schmear of confit garlic, oregano, tomato powder and butter creates a savory mouth feel that rivals a good dry-aged steak. It’s perfect.
Mario and Rich pair the bread with milky house-made mozzarella. They top it with California olive oil and Hawaiian sea salt. That’s the final gimmick at Torrisi: Nothing comes from Italy. Everything’s made in the U.S.A.
That means the chicken parm at lunch gets sweet-sour Jersey tomatoes, not San Marzano. Let me know if you can tell the difference.
Salads and small plates follow. Shallots are smoked and thrown over spinach -- barbecue without the bacon. Pungent anchovy dressing punches up sweet peas. Potatoes collapse in the mouth like creme fraiche. Pork sausage gets a slice of raw fennel and some basil -- to let the sausage pretend it’s salad.
Next course: pasta. Sheep’s milk gnocchi, just barely doughy, sop up a butter sauce. Asparagus is the appropriate bitter antidote. Spaghetti shocks with hot Tabasco. Fusilli gets drenched in a dirty duck ragu of gizzards, hearts, liver. The heady result tastes like the entire fowl was put through a Jack LaLanne Power Juicer.
Final savory dish: meat or fish. Duh: Bring a date, sample both. The layer of fat on duck breast, the bane of greater chefs, is rendered to such a point where it seems to melt like ice cream. A Heritage pork chop, typically served naked and medium rare, is smothered here, retro style, in peppers and a sweet-sour honey chili sauce. The blackened chop is flanked by a finger-licking rib.
Dessert is cookies -- rainbow versions redolent of almond, and bourbon puffs that subvert the wine and beer-only policy. The cannoli surprised me, if only because I’m used to the artificial flavorings and crummy ricotta of lesser versions. Sometimes you can’t beat tradition even with better ingredients.
Recovery or recession, Torrisi is the type of place we’ll be seeing more of. Some will call it a lowering of standards. I call it a changing of standards as young restaurateurs save money for their customers.
Rating: **1/2 (but it would be *** if it weren’t for that no-reservations policy)
The Bloomberg Questions
Cost? $50 dinner menu; a la carte lunch.
Sound level? Hovers around 76.
Date place? Yes. Keep’em waiting and wanting.
Inside tip? Awesome egg, potato and provolone sandwich for lunch.
Special feature? Great, apple-y sparkling wine from Long Island’s Lieb Family Cellars ($66).
Will I be back? When I have time to kill.
Torrisi Italian Specialties is at 250 Mulberry Street, near Prince. Information: +1-212-965-0955; http://piginahat.com/.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. No stars Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels):
51 to 55: Church on a weekday. 56 to 60: The vegetable aisle at the Food Emporium. 61 to 65: Keyboards clacking at the office. 66 to 70: My alarm clock when it goes off inches from my ear. 71 to 75: Corner deli at lunchtime. 76 to 80: Back of a taxi with advertisements at full volume. 81 to 85: Loud, crowded subway with announcements.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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