This is the third post in the Eating the Big Apple series. Other posts include Soba Koh and Sylvia's Restaurant (Gospel Brunch).
The Torrisi chefs and co-owners Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi have received a ton of press lately. Food and Wine Magazine recently crowned them "Best New Chef" for 2012 and New York Magazine called their restaurant "Best of New York" for 2012. Their training arises from some pretty prestigious places (Cafe Boulud, WD-50, Babbo, and Del Posto).
The restaurant's gone through several metamorphoses in the recent past. Torrisi started out as a place that served great Italian sandwiches at lunch and a fun, spontaneous, and creative $50 prix fixe dinner. No reservations were accepted, and the place was always packed with notoriously long waits. People gushed about the incredible tasting menu for such an amazing price.
That was 2010, and a lot has happened since then. They've increased the price of the 4-course tasting menu ($65 last time we went), added the ability to make reservations, increased the number of servers, and made the space a lot nicer.
Remnants of a bygone era - the sandwich menu is still posted behind the bar, even though they don't serve sandwiches here anymore
Speaking of space, the Italian sandwich shop is also gone, now situated down the street at a place called Parm. In November of 2011, Torrisi took over the space of Rocco Restaurant, a beloved, 92-year old red-sauce Italian neighborhood institution that had entertained the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Robert DeNiro, and Johnny Depp (there's a slightly sad tale about Rocco being forced out by an aggressive landlord, but we won't go into that here).
Before, it was virtually impossible (or at least quite painful) to land a seat to taste their creative renditions inspired by Italian food. Now, you can make a reservation during either lunch or dinner to enjoy the original 4-course tasting menu. At dinner, they've added an extravagant 20-course tasting menu for $125 which showcases them at their best (ironically, that has become the reservation that's impossible to score).
The Torrisi chefs are a bit like the soup Nazi when it comes to their menu. Essentially, you have no choice.
OK, I exaggerate slightly. You can choose the protein of your main course, but that's it. The menu changes daily, and is written on a chalkboard high above the counter. For $65 you get a four-course meal, with the "mains" being the only course with a choice. The waiter told us that most couples get one of each so they can try the entire menu.
Sounded reasonable to us, so we went ahead and did just as he recommended.
Fresh mozzarella is made to order right at the counter. Because there were not that many guests at the restaurant that day during lunch (I think we counted 3 tables), the chef allowed us to step up to the bar/counter and watch him make it.
We start with mozzarella curds, which are usually formed by adding an acid (like citric acid) and rennet to milk and then filtering the mixture. The curds here are purchased from an outside vendor.
"We go through so much of the cheese, if we made our own curds, you won't even be able to imagine how much milk we'd have to go through."
Add hot water to the curds, and then just mix it (but not too much!). In order to keep the cheese nice and tender, don't handle it too much. Simply make a nice, round ball, and serve!
The first course, called "Warm Mozzarella DaVero" consists of the mozzarella ball served in extra virgin olive oil and sea salt along with some simple garlic toasts.
The cheese is fantastic. It is still warm (after all, we had watched it being made just moments before), very soft, yet has a definite chewy, almost squeaky, substance to it. The extra virgin olive oil and sea salt bring out the subtle yet defined flavors of the mozzarella itself.
It was absolute perfect.
The next course is clearly a nod to the season (yes, I went in the springtime), when fresh peas are all over the place. English peas, sugar snap peas, and pea tendrils all come together into a lovely, crispy salad. I love the crunch provided by the homemade potato chips as well as the decadent creamy burrata(?) cheese that accompanies it.
"Whipped Char, Smoked Cucumber" is next, served alongside a "Fresh Bagel". This is clearly a playful twist on an old, New York classic - Bagel and Lox. In this case, the smoked fish has become whipped arctic char , which is served with trout roe, creme fraiche, and smoked olive oil.
The mini "Everything" bagels are cute and fun to eat.
"Duck Crepe, Plum Sauce" the next course, reminds me more of a fusion between French food and Chinese food than anything Italian. A duck egg (no flour) crepe wraps around duck leg confit, pickled onions, mint, and plum sauce. I find this course to be a little less memorable. Everything is executed well, but I do not find the flavors to be particularly exciting (duck's also not my favorite meat, so perhaps I'm a bit biased?)
The "Pasta with Rings, Calamari, and Pepperoni", on the other hand, is fantastic. We love the play on the rings theme. You almost can't tell the calamari apart from the pasta because they are virtually the same size and shape. The pepperoni-infused sauce is intensely rich and flavorful. Not only does it have the spicy, smoky depth from the pepperoni, it also posseses a deep, sweet richness from the pine nuts, red peppers, and mussel stock used to make the sauce. The killer combination of ingredients results in an overall astounding sauce.
"Island Duck, Mulberry Mustard"
Bryan loves duck, and he think this next course is fantastic. The meat is soft and tender, cooked so perfectly you wonder whether they used a sous vide machine. Bryan especially likes the intense mustard flavor, which gives a bright pop everytime he bites into one of those mustard seeds.
"Black Bass Marsala, Button"
Though the dish seems simply prepared, this steamed black bass is melt-in-your-mouth soft and infused with a lovely, rich flavor from the Marsala wine. I am surprised that it is not too sweet (perhaps they use much higher quality Marsala wine than I do!). and instead is deeply rich and satisfying.
And don't you love the elegant way in which they have presented the button mushrooms? I don't think I've ever seen button mushrooms look so sophisticated!
We're given a simple lemon-ginger Italian ice palate cleanser to prepare us for dessert.
Cannoli made from Italian pizzelles wrapped around ricotta cheese and candied oranges, brightly colored Italian rainbow cookies (made with lots and lots of almond essence), chocolate mint truffles, a dense pistachio lemon cake, and a nut-roll of sorts
Except for ricotta-inspired desserts (think cannoli and ricotta pie) and coffee-inspired one (e.g. tiramisu), I've never been a huge fan of Italian desserts. I don't love anise (common in a lot of their desserts), and I've always found Italian cookies to be a bit dry.
The "House Pastries" are delicate and pretty, but I don't really love any of them. I find many to be too sweet or just infused with flavor of which I am not a big fan.
Overall, however, we had a great time at Torrisi Italian Specialties. The food is excellent and there's no question that chefs Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi are extremely talented. By only tasting the 4-course, I felt like we only got a glimpse of their true talent. Perhaps the only way to really experience them at their best is to try the $125 twenty-course tasting.
Sometimes I do wish the menu weren't so constricting, though. In my case, I loved the mozzarella and calamari pasta so much that I wish I could sit at the bar and just order those two things. Heck, I'd even consider ordering two mozzarella balls.
But it doesn't work like that.
And frankly, there's enough demand for Torrisi's food, the chefs can basically do whatever they want and people will come.
Torrisi Italian Specialties
250 Mulberry St.
New York, NY
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