You can’t trust even the “big cheese” restaurant critics on Carbone. Half of them raved. The other half seethed with disdain. I’m embarrassed to confess, you can’t trust even me. My inner adventuress says you’ll want a taste of the Torrisi boys’ homage to the finer Italian-American dining of the ’50s. My cynical self worries you won’t be amused and will blame me as you exit, snarling at some real or imagined exploitation.
Everyone I knew was scheming to get in that first week. The front room fairly vibrated. I loved the look: The Godfather-inspired tiles, the waiters dressed for the prom by Zac Posen—and yes, in sneakers. I could tell we’d landed in the VIP room—even if it was smash up against the kitchen—because Tony Bennett had just left, and chef Michael White sat in the opposite corner. I’d read that Julian Schnabel’s son, Vito, had curated the artwork: A self-portrait of Francesco Clemente on the back wall was a sophisticated anachronism. I caught Torrisi in the kitchen and Mario Carbone taking bows up front. I got the joke… or was it a joke?
The barrage of freebies—chunks of grana, Grandma’s greasy-sauce-smeared focaccia, curls of prosciutto, garlic toast, sticky breadsticks—reminded me of Il Mulino in its golden youth. The kitchen was understandably slow, but I really liked the clams baked three ways: crumbed, lardo’d and topped with sea urchin. All of us were impressed—indeed, surprised—by the not-at-all-’50s carpaccio Piemontese, a gift from the house. (Truffles? We didn’t know what fresh truffles were in the ’50s.) And the period music was a hoot. Buddy Holly. Dion and the Belmonts. The Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman.”
We ordered pastas to share, and meatballs. Our waiter had a sly-fox look. He pretended he was dedicated to indulging our every whim, but suddenly you couldn’t put an elbow on the table—it was covered with food. On his own, he’d quietly doubled our order—eight half portions of pasta. (Linguine vongole, $52, it read on the bill. Rigatoni, $46.) I couldn’t stop eating the rigatoni alla vodka, spicy and obscenely rich. Of course, I wanted a sprinkle of Calabrese breadcrumbs. And extra chile flakes.
That $50 veal parm everyone was whining about made sense to me. Actually, it looks like a fat pizza. It was thick and carpeted with mozzarella and tomato sauce, scattered with fried basil leaves and served sprawling on a silver platter—more than four of us could eat. And that night it was tender. I liked the one small bite of smoked cherry-pepper ribs I could manage. My friends were too full to taste.
They were confused, too. “I never saw ribs in an old-fashioned Italian place,” one of them said. “And what is this Chinese chicken?” But we swallowed our annoyance with giggles when we watched the waiter wrestling a show-and-tell display tray of oversize cakes across the room. We got halfway through a serious portion of the lemon cheesecake and sampled the giveaway fried dough under a drift of powdered sugar.
Once for the theater of Carbone was enough for me, I thought; I wasn’t wild about midcentury Italian-American cooking even as a budding foodie adolescent back in the middle of the last century. But a few weeks later, friends persuaded me to go back because they’d never get in without me. Ten minutes standing against the wall, waiting for the table to turn, didn’t seem excessive. Nicole Miller was miffed her table wasn’t ready, but was persuaded to mind less when she saw me in limbo, too.
I spied the sleazy waiter. He’d been transferred to the front room. I relaxed. But then I couldn’t help noticing a certain fatigue. The freebies seemed skimpier. The waiter assigned to trundling the hollowed-out Parmesan shell fished out for us two little doodles of cheese, one small, the other smaller. There were only two slim fingers of tomato bread—admittedly delicious—and four tissue-thin slices of ham for five of us. I ordered a Caesar salad for two so I could watch it tossed tableside, and was stunned when it arrived in a snowstorm of cheese, on a small oval plate.
“Where did you toss it? I didn’t see,” I protested.
“I couldn’t get close to your table,” our waiter said, excusing himself. Though later, another server got close enough to toss a salad for Derek Jeter and friends in the corner just inches away. And yes, their VIP cheese chunks were on growth hormones.
I tasted a lump of my neighbor’s sea urchin in the spiny shell, a $30 starter I can’t imagine on Mulberry Street. But that’s OK. Another companion’s $38 scampi alla scampi was perfectly cooked—“a bargain,” he insisted, compared to Cipriani’s. A standard $24 portion of rigatoni alla vodka was still obscenely rich and delicious. The lobster piccata was impeccably tender, the asparagus draped over it properly al dente. But for someone like me, the $87 tariff definitely dilutes the pleasure.
No one really expected to like the outsize veal chop Parmesan. This time it was soggy and tough and everyone felt vindicated. Much of the food was aggressively salty, but the creamy, baked escarole with bacon tasted doubly salted—especially annoying, since I couldn’t stop eating it.
The waiter came to recite the desserts. “Don’t tell us,” I cried. “Bring us the tray.”
“It’s too heavy,” he said. Whatever happened to “The show must go on!” I brooded. We sat trying not to stare at Derek. Finally the waiter found a footman to bring a modified version of the sweet tray I remembered. The Escher-like carrot cake is good enough, but the chocolate cake brought back a taste of childhood. We waved away the offered bottles of limoncello and grappa that we would at least sip if we were in Venice.
At the next table, a woman I see often in all the hot places muttered as she left: “They told us the wine would be no more than $275 and it was $365. My friends made me just pay it.”
I say, fight your paranoid tendencies and exit smiling.
181 Thompson St. between Bleecker and Houston, 212.254.3000
Dinner: Sun.-Thu.: 5:30pm to midnight, Fri. and Sat.: 5:30pm-1am