With its Polly-O mozzarella, chicken parmesan sandwiches and portrait of Billy Joel on the wall, Torrisi Italian Specialties was initially a curious venue best known for three-hour waits and oddball tasting menus.
The payoff for your effort was seven or eight excellent dishes, all for $50, in a cramped space with a lousy wine list.
Last November Torrisi raised its prices and eliminated the inconveniences. Most of them. There are no more sandwiches for lunch and no more lines outside.
Instead, you now wait a month for a prime-time table.
Those seven tasty plates now cost $65. Add a few oysters, some Wagyu beef and an “Almond Joy” dessert and your bill suddenly exceeds $100 before wine.
Fast fingers on the speed-dial might score a spot for the 20-course menu, limited to around 16 diners a night at $150 per person ($225 with beverage pairings). Now we’re looking at $500-plus per couple.
That’s a long way from 50 bucks a head, wait or no wait.
But guess what? That’s all right, because chefs Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi have transformed this tiny Nolita restaurant from a casual spot into one of our city’s great restaurants, a gustatory love letter to New York’s ethnic neighborhoods, notably Chinatown, the Lower East Side and Little Italy.
What was cramped now feels clubby, and the service is as refined as at any top restaurant.
The 20-course tasting begins with soft-pretzel balls and Gulden’s mustard dust. Then out comes a bite of cashew-covered Chinese chicken.
Torrisi is definitely not Daniel.
Plump Montauk oysters are doused in deli-style pepper vinegar; clams are anointed with Schaefer beer foam; black sturgeon caviar (the good stuff) covers bite-size knishes.
The Italian agrodolce syrup on your plate is a homemade Manischewitz Concord grape reduction. It’s grapey and musky, a perfect match for lamb that’s humorously paired with Jerusalem artichokes.
For spaghetti with blue crab, Torrisi mixes aji dulce, Anaheim and cubanelle peppers, mimicking the flavor of pizza pepperoni. Each course is presented in its own distinctive dish and with matched service. You’re in each particular nabe for a few idyllic minutes: Nostalgia refined.
Even better than the spaghetti is the Delmonico steak tartare. Tiny cubes of rib-eye are lightly seared to work up the flavors. Then the kitchen tosses in some dry-aged beef fat for oomph. Sweet gherkins sub for capers and an avant-garde “bearnaise ravioli” subs for raw egg yolk. It all comes with thick, chewy potato chips, which Torrisi should immediately start selling at its Yankee Stadium sandwich stand.
Too bad those taters are only available on the $150 menu. Still, those who opt for the $65 tasting will experience as much culinary bliss as New York’s two and three-Michelin starred restaurants.
Here’s what you get: creamy sweetbreads that boast the acid balance of Alain Ducasse and the blackened grill marks of an outdoor Bensonhurst barbecue. Striped bass sits in a tomato-and oregano-heavy Manhattan clam chowder.
Pasta e fagioli, typically a minestrone-style soup, becomes an Italian riff on ramen. Soft noodles sop up a gelatinous pig trotter broth; ham oil adds smoke and kale pretends to make the whole thing healthy.
This is all very precise cooking.
Duck gets the five-hour sous-vide treatment for succulence while American Wagyu short ribs chill out in a high-tech vapor oven for a 10 hour journey to rare before getting a quick steakhouse char. The marbled meat melts in the mouth just like the Japanese stuff, with a clean beefy flavor.
To pair with the short ribs, smart diners will choose the leathery Wind Gap Syrah for $20, poured into an elegant Spiegelau stem; most of the old thick-lipped glasses have been banished.
Torrisi’s beverage offerings have improved, but wine is still the restaurant’s weak spot. The all-American list would be nobler if it showed off America’s best wines. Estimable sparklers from Lieb Cellars and Roederer Estate were the only Champagne-imitators offered by the glass recently; why not show off more ambitious and alternative bubbly from Iron Horse or J Vineyards?
No matter. Ginger Italian ices cleanse the palate and all of a sudden you’re eating high-end peppermint patties with ricotta cannoli.
Torrisi isn’t perfect. But it comes close.
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: $65 for shorter menu; $150 for longer tasting.
Sound Level: Around 70 decibels; very pleasant.
Date Place: Yes.
Inside Tip: Easiest reservations are for weekend lunch.
Special Feature: Polenta as sweet as cornbread.
Back on My Own Dime: Yes, for the Wagyu.
Torrisi Italian Specialties is at 250 Mulberry St. Information: +1-212-965-0955; http://www.torrisinyc.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor
Sound-Level (in decibels): 51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse. 56 to 60: Speak up. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: You’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Craig Seligman on books and Upper East Side galleries.