Restaurant Review: At Torrisi, the Room Is Showy but the Cooking Is Subtle

The latest from Major Food Group has the usual over-the-top trappings — and nuanced Italian dishes informed by China, Vietnam and Jamaica, for starters.

Italian and American ham is served with zeppole. The menu draws from immigrant cultures in Little Italy and beyond.Credit…Evan Sung for The New York Times

Supported by

Send any friend a story

As a subscriber, you have 10 gift articles to give each month. Anyone can read what you share.

By Pete Wells

From the street, Torrisi Bar & Restaurant looks like a set for the hottest restaurant in New York in a movie made by people who don’t live in New York.

You can’t see inside the curtained windows, but you can read the restaurant’s name, painted in gold script, from across the street. Black S.U.V.s with tinted windows wait at the curb. A doorman (or is he a bouncer?) in a heavy overcoat looks over each new arrival. The inside doors are so tall and heavy they don’t give unless you put your back into it. The last place I saw doors like these was Grant’s Tomb.

In the actual city, hot restaurants don’t look like this, or didn’t before the Major Food Group came along. This company has never seen a top it couldn’t go over. Even its expansion drive has been bigger than anybody else’s. Since the pandemic began, it has rolled into Las Vegas; Dallas; Miami; Boston; Boca Raton, Fla.; Hong Kong; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; and Doha, Qatar.

The group has waged a prolonged assault on the boring minimalism that is supposed to go along with serious modern dining. Its weapon is maximalism: with velvet tuxedos, stagy service and a love for all the props and paraphernalia of midcentury American dining. This has been copied often, though not by the boring minimalists, unfortunately.

More is more at Torrisi, which moved into the Puck Building in NoLIta in December. Across from the host stand is a vitrine in which legs of Italian prosciutto and American country ham are displayed like jewels in Harry Winston’s window. The bar, almost the length of a city block, might have been modeled on one of the grand 19th-century hotel saloons where Jerry Thomas poured Blue Blazers.

People sit at low tables against the window or stand at high tables by the kitchen. The open floor plan was taken from the last tenant, Chefs Club, a branding effort by Food & Wine where the idea, as far as I could tell, was to watch as your meal was made. Torrisi turned the dining room in on itself. Diners, from their deep circular booths and padded leather chairs, look at one another, not the cooks.

One thing about Torrisi that really should change is the hiring for the front of the house. Although there are women working at the door and in other positions, most of the dining room waiters and the captains were men when I was there. So were the bartenders. These are, of course, among the highest-paying jobs. Major Food Group has done this before at the Grill and Carbone; do the partners think we’re nostalgic for a time when women weren’t supposed to wait tables at serious restaurants?

The new restaurant is one block north on Mulberry Street from the place where it all began back in 2010, Torrisi Italian Specialties. There was no food group yet, just two chefs, Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone, and the only thing major about the place was their talent. A four-course dinner was $50 in the beginning, much less than an equivalent meal would have cost anywhere else (and good luck finding anything equivalent). The room pulsed with excitement and pleasure combined with slight disbelief. Most of the diners knew they were eating above their usual place in the food chain.

At Torrisi you can pay twice $50 for some of the specials listed on the diner-style menu board. At the bottom of the list is often a wink to a repeat customer: “Welcome back Adam.” The cultivation of regulars seems to be a major endeavor of Major Food, and the tables are supplied with people who give the impression that they can afford to eat wherever they want.

You might think Mr. Torrisi would have to amplify his food to compete with this three-ring circus. (As the name suggests, it’s his show, with offstage help from Mr. Carbone and their third partner, Jeff Zalaznick.) In fact, he is doing the most subtle and evocative cooking of his career.

There is an appetizer described as “charred clam boule” that is essentially chopped clams on an English muffin. It played with my memories of linguine with clams, New Haven-style clam pies and after-school toaster-oven pizzas. But it isn’t any of those; it’s a wonderful new thing.

Mr. Torrisi can take a food I know well and give it to me in a version that blew past any others. The steaming-hot zeppole, for instance, that come with sliced country ham and fruit mostarda remind me of the fried dough I’ve gobbled from greasy paper boats at the Feast of San Gennaro and a dozen other street fairs, but they’re much crisper and airier.

The origins of a salad called cucumbers New Yorkese go back to a pickle plate that Torrisi Italian Specialties served once upon a time. But the flavors have been freshened and emphasized, and what used to taste like a shopping trip to Essex Street is now more of a poem about it.

The restaurant’s great, covert theme is immigration in Lower Manhattan. The backbone of the menu is still penne and escarole and chicken alla griglia, drawn from a Little Italy that is not much more than a name these days. But Mr. Torrisi is always looking at the blocks around Mulberry Street, too. “Chopped liver with Manischewitz” is a jokey name for a profoundly rich chicken liver parfait under a Concord grape and red-wine gelée — I’d normally use the English word here, but this is not standard grape jelly (and Manischewitz has nothing to do with it, either).

Crunchy, tender octopus, cloaked in soy sauce and spicy with fresh chiles, is recognizably and deliciously Vietnamese. It’s a tribute to a dish served at Nha Trang One on Baxter Street, where it’s made with squid.

Now Mr. Torrisi is taking us to a Chinese place on Mott Street — Hop Lee, I’d guess — for stir-fried lobster with ginger and scallions over noodles, turned into something called capellini Cantonese. This pasta version has more chiles for sure, but you can still taste Chinatown in it.

One of Mr. Torrisi’s gifts is his ability to let you taste two ideas at once, as if he were playing a harmonic line under the melody. Some of his dishes remind me of Brian Wilson’s songs. They can have a gentle, lyrical and introspective feeling while showing a remarkable grasp of techniques that can be used to achieve new effects. (Mr. Carbone, in this scenario, is Mike Love, or at least his positive traits; the restaurant that most clearly bears his imprint, Carbone, is a master class in manipulating the appeal of shared memories, good times and fun, fun, fun.)

When I tasted Scotch bonnets and allspice searing their way through the beef cheek ragù on a bowl of cavatelli, I could also taste Jamaican beef patties. The dish works on both levels. So does the linguine “in a pink Manhattan clam sauce.” Yes, it’s got to be the best version of linguine vongole you can find on Mulberry Street, but it also tastes like the best Manhattan clam chowder you can find — well, anywhere, since it’s usually not very good.

There’s much more on the menu, and a lot of it is more strictly Italian. The cooking gets simpler, or at least it appears to, when you get to main courses like the sole Francese in its golden, eggy jacket of batter, and the black bass, potatoes and onions scented with fresh oregano in the style of La Dogana in Tuscany.

Desserts are a parting gift from Stephanie Prida, who left her job as pastry chef for Major Food Group just before Torrisi opened. They seem straightforward, but I won’t be trying them at home. The frozen yogurt has the fluffiness of fresh-churned ice cream, and is accessorized with pink-grapefruit pulp and fruity green olive oil. Torrisi’s affogato has been thoroughly redesigned, with coffee granita in place of hot espresso. A frozen affogato can be eaten more slowly, a definite advantage with Ms. Prida’s ice cream, so packed with vanilla that you want to make it last all night.

Torrisi may end up being a polarizing restaurant because of the size, the expense and the noise — louder in the dining room than at the bar, which is an achievement. But I can’t imagine that the food will be controversial. It does exactly what we want from a chef working at Mr. Torrisi’s level, of whom there aren’t many. A strong, thoughtful point of view is at work up and down and around the menu. The food is delicious and well prepared and all that, but it has something to say, too. Even if you don’t stop to listen, you’ll hear it.

Follow New York Times Cooking on InstagramFacebookYouTube, TikTok and PinterestGet regular updates from New York Times Cooking, with recipe suggestions, cooking tips and shopping advice.

Site Index

Site Information Navigation

Source: Read Full Article