NEW YORK — For nearly a year now I’ve been hearing about this funky new Italian restaurant in Lower Manhattan called Torrisi Italian Specialties. During the day it’s a sandwich shop, cannily designed to look like the markets of nearby Little Italy, with a front deli counter, white subway tile on the walls and cans of tomatoes and other dry goods stacked in shelving on the walls. At night it turns into a restaurant that serves a fixed-price dinner ($50) to at most about 20 guests at a time. Plates and chairs are basic, and cheap cutlery arrives in paper napkin rolls.
The restaurant scored an impressive 2-star review in the New York Times from Sam Sifton, who said its two chefs, Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi, were cooking with “a burst of creative excellence.” It all sounded great — especially the $50 part. Serious dining in New York is usually a lot more expensive than that.
But there’s nothing serious about Torrisi. It plays and winks constantly — both with the recipes and the language of Italian-American cooking. (I had to read “Brighton Beets” a couple of times on their online menu before I got the joke.)
More than that, Torrisi signals a new spirit in dining that’s more freewheeling, questioning and inventive to its core. It reconsiders the notion of fixed-price dining. It follows a new kind of narrative — one that I imagine a number of chefs in New York and in Atlanta will soon enough start emulating.
We sit down to gratis glasses of domestic sparkling wine served in old-fashioned champagne coupes. I want this glass, with its nose-tingling birdbath of fizz, back.
All we need to choose off the blackboard menu is the fish or the meat of the evening; the rest of it just begins coming.
The kitchen always starts you off with a warm ball of just-made mozzarella, as snappy as taffy, with fantastic garlic toast on the side.
The other antipasti change from night to night, and they come in helter-skelter, overlapping courses, so you end up with some of this and a little more of that crowding the table.
We get something called “The Rancher’s Eggs” — paper-thin omelet wedges filled with black beans and cilantro pesto in a tomato sauce. Then cold florets of roasted cauliflower come dressed with umami-rich Chinese dried scallop vinaigrette. (I espied the cauliflowers on the deli case when I walked in, and in the dim lighting mistook them for brains.) Then Sweetbreads Nha Trang arrive. Perhaps they’re named for a Southeast Asian city because they’re well browned and sticky like Vietnamese caramel claypot chicken. The Asian seasonings, however, make great sense, as Chinatown is a block or two away. This food is nothing if not totally local.
The waiter clears the table, resets it with another flimsy silverware roll for the pasta course — a just-right portion of chewy fusilli in “Dirty Duck Ragu” made with ground meat and liver, thrumming with flavor.
My wife orders duck breast with mulberry mustard, a joke on the restaurant’s address, Mulberry Street, a storied drag through Little Italy. My fillet of sole sports a thin, ruddy wash of Marsala vinaigrette with slivered raw button mushrooms, parsley and celery leaf. It’s as if someone took a picture of veal Marsala, overexposed it to wash out the depth of field, and then tried to re-imagine the flavor. Brilliant.
And we end our meal as they always do at Torrisi — with little bursts of sweet wit. Paper cups of Italian ice give way to a plate of Italian cookies (the kind my grandmother always had, but not stale), and cups of strong espresso. As I nibble on a tricolor chocolate marzipan cookie, I think about how much I liked this meal almost more for its format than its (nonetheless great) flavors. That one bit of choice — fish or meat? — is key. But, really, you want to sit back and hear what the chefs have to say.
Torrisi Italian Specialties is a bit like the television series “Lost.” It has a story to tell, and a kind of screwy way of telling it. But if you pay attention, it rewards you.
I checked out a couple of other places in New York, as well:
My hotel was right around the corner from The John Dory Oyster Bar, so I was able to stop into this insanely popular new restaurant from April Bloomfield (The Spotted Pig) just as they started serving dinner and snagged a spot at the wraparound window counter. I tried a really great little dish of razor clam ceviche and some warm Parker House rolls. The dish I’m still dreaming about: an escarole salad tossed in a bright, acidic, creamy anchovy dressing and showered with a rude flurry of buttery bread crumbs. Here and there in the salad with little bits of the dark green outer leaf that seem to have been lightly pickled.
I really didn’t care for a thin lobster soup called lobster panade; its roasted shell stock tasted a little burnt. The waiter picked right up on my unhappy food face when he asked about it, and talked me into exchanging it for this chorizo-stuffed squid. There was some paella-style rice in the stuffing, as well, a bed of tiny rice beans in a tangy cream, sweetly roasted tomato sauce and a fluff of sturdy cilantro in a tingle of dressing. So much attention to detail, so much going on in every bite. I can see why the food world has a collective case of the hots for Ms. Bloomfield.
I really wanted to love Matsugen more than I did. This Japanese restaurant in the Jean-Georges Vongerichten family of restaurants specializes in handmade soba — buckwheat noodles that can be served hot in broth or cold with dipping sauces. There is also sushi and a interesting lineup of small plates on the menu.
We didn’t have any luck with the small plates. Uni in yuzu gelée came as a super-chilled small bowl — a tiny skating rink of jelly with the uni submerged. The too-cold temperature obviated the sweet creaminess of the sea urchin, and the gel didn’t have any of the distinctive citrus flavor of yuzu (citron) I had expected.
Another oddity: the so-called “tofu skin” appetizer didn’t bring the sheets of yuba (the thin membrane that forms on the top of setting bean curd) but rather white, perfectly rectilinear dominoes of plain tofu.
We ordered expensive soba assortments that featured the three kinds of house noodles with different preparations to mix and match. It was good, especially the “inaka” or country-style soba — the darkest and most flavorful of the three kinds offered, with visible flecks of buckwheat husk in the strands of pasta. But as I was eating it I realized that there was nothing rustic anywhere in this beautiful, refined restaurant. Japanese refinement, I think, always means more when it references the simple, rustic basis for the food and culture. This place seems all glamour.