An Ode to Italian-American Cuisine That Plays the Same Old Tune
While tasting menus and three-hour dining “experiences” have grown close to my heart, a trip to Carbone–more than anywhere else in NYC–meant a journey into the restaurants of my childhood. Not simply in terms of food, but the restaurant as a communal, living space with a sense of culture and continuity.
Growing up, and to this day (albeit in a less fanatical form), we always had the Italian standby. A location would be anointed, the staff would become dear friends, a dish or two with the “Angelillo” moniker might even grace the menu, and, after a few or many years, the restaurant’s death knell would mean it was on to the next place. This is all to say: I’m deep down still most comfortable dining under the blaring notes of Dean Martin with a heaping basket of bread–always the end pieces–in front of me. Any chef or restaurateur drawing on those memories (and charging $65 for a veal parm) would be engaging the very building blocks of my taste and nostalgia and subject to an unintentionally high level of scrutiny.
Co-owners Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone hold a similar wistfulness for the Italian-American restaurants of yore, the kind that have faded in the wake of more authentically European, elegant Italian eateries. The kinds that serve forkfuls of pasta instead of fistfuls and meatballs you’d hit with a putter rather than a bat. Carbone rejects the pretension and fussiness but is in no way short on effortless charm. The wait staff, bedecked in bowties and white aprons, whisk around the mosaic tile floor with ceramic pitchers of water, stopping to explain exactly what “Fra Diavolo” entails. A lone bartender rhythmically mixes and measures at a cramped, standing only bar in the corner of the dining room as Sinatra and Tony Bennett take turns serenading the clientele. It’s a captivating environment that really indulges in capturing the ristorante spirit without seeming tacky or tongue-in-cheek.
I certainly felt right at home in the setting and, upon taking my seat, was quickly greeted by a waiter–wheel of Parmigiano in hand–who broke a chunk of the cheese off and placed it on an awaiting plate. With a simple touch, comfort turned into bliss. Carbone is undeniably a hotspot–and I wouldn’t characterize the service as anything more than average–but the concept has been thought out so thoroughly that even rehearsed elements of the meal like that truly shine. The dramatics extend all the way to the comically oversized menus, which guide you from antipasti and macaroni to a selection of eight pesci and nine carni, all classics–but not without some spins.
My meal began with a plate of three different trios of baked clams, an intelligent and clever extension of the familiar concept. First, the usual Oreganata variety with “intentionally” soggy breadcrumbs. Though I certainly missed a touch of Tabasco (and a pool of buttery drippings to dip my bread), Carbone showed a solid command of the classic clam. They were filled with far more meat than you’d usually get and a well-balanced blend of butter, oregano, and lemon. The second trio of bivalves, and by far the crunchiest of the lot, took inspiration from the Rhode Island favorite clams casino. While the layer of bacon had a nice texture and smoke to it, the amount of salt was a bit overwhelming and made it hard to distinguish the flavor of the seafood. The last three clams on the plate–titled “Fantasia”–were each delicately topped with a piece of sea urchin roe. Though uni is one of my very favorite ingredients, I think it got a little lost with the stronger flavors at play. That being said, the bite itself was velvety and nonetheless benefitted from the added briny sweetness.
The octopus pizzaiolo and zuppa di mussels proved tempting options, but I instead opted for the scampi alla scampi. At Carbone, that means three Scottish langoustines poached, in the classic fashion, in court-bouillon. The crustaceans were undeniably fresh and sweet, the sauce sinfully rich and fragrant; however, at $54 a plate, I got merely six bites out of the plate for all my work scraping and sucking. I rarely question paying for quality but couldn’t help but feel the scampi went against the very spirit of the restaurant, riding purely on a fussy, foreign ingredient rather than any real imagination.
While the antipasti had some missteps, I was still enjoying my bottle of Chianti and relishing my spot on the dining room banquette. It was a Tuesday night, and the restaurant was turning away groups of patrons while, at the same time, big-bellied “friends of the restaurant” were suavely led to open tables “in the back.” Suddenly, a waiter approached me with a small ceramic dish of Spanish anchovies, asking if they were “ok.” I knew that the turning point of the meal was at hand.
Perhaps more than any of the other, more glamorous dishes on the menu, Carbone is famous for their tableside “Caesar alla ZZ.” Nonplussed by the world’s most expensive scampi and quite an experimenter with Caesar dressings myself, I looked to the signature salad as a guidepost to the restaurant’s quality in the face of all the hype. Sad to say, once the waiter disappeared with my anchovies, he certainly didn’t return to make my salad in front of me. Instead, I saw him just behind some plants at the servers’ station grating the cheese and tossing the romaine that would, moments later, brought before me without any sort of acknowledgement that it hadn’t come from the kitchen. The worst part is, I can truly say it was the tangiest, crunchiest, most vibrant Caesar salad I’ve ever tasted. Buried in shredded Pecorino cheese with chewy house-made croutons, each bite from the overflowing bowl was wonderfully dressed and bursting with garlic, Dijon, lemon, and pepper. I’m still baffled at why the dish was prepared just barely out of my eyesight, but I’ll concede that Carbone let their flavors do the talking.
For my entrées, the real test of the restaurant’s bona fides, I ordered the one-two punch of pasta and veal parm that satisfied me week after week as a child. My noodles of choice: angel hair tossed in garlic and oil. At Carbone, they come AOP style: that is, aglio, olio, e peperoncino with a mix of three brightly colored peppers interlaced. The angel hair was nicely al dente and understated in terms of flavor, allowing the fresh garlic and quality of the olive oil to assert themselves with little bites of the peppers here and there. At $21, it was a fair price for a restrained but unerring dish that honored its ingredients’ simplicity.
At $64 (yes, that’s somehow more than the scampi), Carbone’s veal Parmesan was undoubtedly subject to the most scrutiny of the night’s offerings. I was intrigued but sincerely excited at the prospect of such a well to do cutlet–had they found that same milk-fed veal Joe Pesci talks about serving in his restaurant in Casino? What arrived was perhaps twice the size of a usual, generous veal parm, glistening and golden brown with an actual bone on the plate to boot. Four leaves of fried basil topped the meat in what would have been a pleasant surprise for my younger self, who always endeavored to pick every little green shred off his dinner. The cheese was nicely melted, the sauce had just the right tang without being overbearing or clumpy, and the veal itself was white and succulent. I ate every morsel on the plate and gnawed the bone clean in a fit of carnivorous fervor. It was the best veal parm I’ve tasted, but it didn’t change my life. Price aside (which I think could be justified for a couple splitting the dish), Carbone clearly aimed for a purely reverent take on the dish. While I appreciated the wish fulfillment of getting exactly the flavors I wanted, I still felt a tinge of sadness that the best veal Parmesan I’ve ever tasted was only a slight notch above the hundreds I’ve tasted before.
My meal came to a close with a visit from the dessert tray, where I picked out an excellent slice of lemon cheesecake reminiscent of a well-balanced key lime pie. Carbone’s espresso machine was broken–preventing any post-meal cappuccino–but I’ve seen so many Italian restaurants in the same situation before that I can’t help but consider it a painfully authentic detail.
Painfully authentic seems to be the word for the restaurant when all things are considered. Carbone does little more than any great Italian-American restaurant in its prime would have done (with the exception of the price-gouging) but succeeds in offering a polished, trendy novelty that exists in few places anymore. The little moments of creativity, like the baked clams and the langoustines, struggled to impress. At the same time, the Caesar, pasta, and veal parm succeeded in their presentation of sacred, familiar flavors. Torrisi and Carbone certainly have respect for the Italian-American food of years gone by, but perhaps too much for it. The restaurant is ultimately a recreation and not an innovation, yet it charges the prices of a fine dining concept. If you can stomach the price, it’s hard to say no to such classic dishes that will surely satisfy. Just don’t blink while you’re there, because Carbone might have the Italian-American look yet lacks the soul.
Date Visited: 9/22/15