Better Than Grandma

Torrisi Italian SpecialtiesPhoto: Hannah Whitaker/New York Magazine

Although one-half of the Underground Gourmet grew up wallowing in the weekly feast known to Italian-Americans as Sunday supper—that all-you-can-eat orgy and sadomasochistic opportunity for the wooden-spoon-wielding family matriarch to show her love and try to kill you at the same time—nothing could have prepared us for dinner at Torrisi Italian Specialties. For one thing, the four-course, Sunday-supper-ish meal is served six nights a week—a feat that even Grandma in her prime couldn’t pull off. For another, after it’s all over, you won’t find yourself drifting off into a dyspeptic slumber on a plastic-wrapped couch in front of the television; instead, you’re compulsively checking the website for the next night’s menu.

Dinner at Torrisi, you see, is quite unlike any other Italian experience in town. It’s even, perplexingly for some, quite unlike lunch, when the handsome, grocery-store-style shop (salamis in the window, Progresso bread crumbs on the shelves) traffics in credible counter-service chicken parm and Italian combo heros, plus hefty slabs of lasagne or eggplant parm (all made as a kind of high-concept gimmick, with American ingredients and nary a hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano or an imported San Marzano in sight). But then, at 6 p.m., the identity shifts, a culinary conversion that causes some confusion among potential customers dropping in for a turkey hero. Instead, they’re met with a chalkboard menu that lists the night’s prix fixe repast and a pyrotechnic kitchen with something to prove. At $45, dinner’s a tremendous bargain, and a serious delight. In the realm of red-sauce cooking, it’s nothing short of revolutionary.

Partners Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi might have Sunday gravy flowing through their veins, but what they are doing at this unassuming eighteen-seat joint is far more delicate, even daintier, than their ancestral inspiration. After formative years cooking for luminaries like Daniel Boulud and Mario Batali at places such as Café Boulud and Del Posto, they’re applying haute technique and the best local, seasonal ingredients they can find to the tired tropes of Italian-American cooking, taking an inventive, almost intellectual approach to the oft-derided cuisine. In a comfortably casual setting (no reservations, no linen, no airs), they serve their meticulously tweaked Italian-American classics like a chef’s tasting at the French Laundry: as a progression of refined, carefully constructed small plates instead of a cavalcade of Little Italy–scale platters. And what’s more, they change the menu—five antipasti, a pasta, a choice of two entrées, a dessert sampler—every single night.

One happy constant, so far, has been the Lilliputian squares of garlic bread that begin each meal: Light and crisp, imbued with garlic and dappled with tomato powder and house-dried oregano, they’re more Spanish tapas than Mulberry Street standby. They accompany mozzarella that’s made to order, still warm, fairly oozing, and served in pillowy mounds ringed with good, fragrant olive oil from California. It’s the first salvo in a wave of antipasti that might also include something unexpected but geographically logical, like Chinatown long beans cut short, gently cooked, and mingled with breakfast radishes, mint, and chopped B&G hot cherry peppers straight from the jar. Or a Spanish-leaning eggplant rollatini, delicately crisp and filled with confited tuna belly flavored with paprika and topped with chopped red peppers. Custardy, barely scrambled eggs infused with green garlic are topped with charred radicchio that’s laced with an invigorating anchovy vinaigrette. And slices of grilled Parisi Bakery prosciutto bread swiped with parsley pesto and topped with a layer of creamy, pungent baccalà and bits of cured lemon might just be the last word on the subject of bruschette.

That’s just round one. These antipasti, and others like it, arrive on saucer-size china that could have come from Grandma’s cupboard, and are served family style, meaning you’re meant to share portions that Jamie Oliver’s target demo might consider puny. But each is a bright burst of flavor, just enough to sate, not stuff. That’s good, as pasta comes next. A few recent examples: expertly cooked linguine with tender littleneck clams, baby pasta shells with calamari and pepperoni, and perfectly textured Greenmarket-ricotta gnocchi with ramps and grated Greenmarket Pecorino. It’s the type of refined but satisfying primi—whether the pasta is purchased from venerable local purveyors like Caputo’s and Raffetto’s or made in-house—that’s equal to any of the best upscale Italian kitchens in town.

The main course is typically a choice between a rotating roster of surf and turf. One night’s Long Island tilefish is fresh and flaky, dressed with pickled green tomato and house-cured olives, and served alongside a crisp-edged potato galette. A Heritage pork chop is moist and meaty, crowned with zingy housemade vinegar peppers, and the “devil’s chicken,” Torrisi’s riff on pollo alla diavola, eschews a blazing chile burn for a more complex, sweet-and-smoky flavor profile derived from a carefully calibrated mix of New Mexico chile peppers and offset by an underlying dollop of tangy New York State yogurt.

Italian ice (grapefruit one night, apple another) served in what looks like a paper pill dispenser makes a genius palate-cleanser and a sweet segue into a dessert plate that will change your mind about Italian desserts: mini-cannoli encasing Salvatore Bklyn ricotta in crisp pizzelles, lovely bourbon cream puffs, Milanos made from scratch. Even the ubiquitous rainbow cookies are a revelation, soft and nutty and slicked with chocolate. They’re all baked by one of the two unfailingly gracious waitresses, who also, as it happens, puts together the wine list— a modest document that, like the kitchen, bypasses imports for domestics, largely from California and the Pacific Northwest. Personally, we find that the $30 New Mexico bubbly goes great with everything and would make a welcome addition to Sunday supper tables anywhere.

Torrisi Italian Specialties
Address: 250 Mulberry St., nr. Prince St.; 212-965-0955
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., dinner 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. Closed Mondays.
Prices: Lunch, $3 to $13; dinner, $45.
Ideal Meal: The menu changes daily and the only choice is the entrée (we’re partial to devil’s chicken).
Note: Coffee cake and sesame cookies, preferably with a Strongtree Americano, are available only during the day and worth a special trip.
Scratchpad: By turning maligned ingredients like California olives into piquant vinaigrettes, and harnessing the hidden haute potential of Progresso bread crumbs, this deceptively ambitious kitchen is reinventing Italian-American cuisine without sacrificing any of its crowd-pleasing appeal. Four stars for the bright idea and the expectations-exceeding food, plus another for the laid-back setting and terrific service.

Better Than Grandma