Italian food in New York City is terrible. Most of all in Little Italy. It’s all aimed at tourists, who are so enraptured with the closed, car-free streets and the outdoor seating that they forget to notice the bland, uninspired food. And then there’s Torrisi Italian Specialties, which was bold and impassioned, playful and polished–an embodiment of New York City itself.
Torrisi’s seven course, $65 prix-fixe menu is a steal and has received nothing but raves, but of course we couldn’t settle for a mere seven courses and went for the twenty-one course, $150 chef’s tasting menu with seven excellent wine pairings for $75.
This “mocktail”, a riff on the classic Americano, was made not with Campari and vermouth but juice and housemade bitters. My favourite part of it was the giant square ice cube. I’m not hard to please.
smoked sable cigarette
the quail’s olive
rabbit and carrot
buckwheat caviar knish
chicken and cashews
Torrisi is a bustling deli by day, serving a brined turkey sandwich office workers while away their lunch breaks waiting in line for, and the bar snacks were the perfect interlude to switch the tiny kitchen from that of a casual sandwich shop to one that puts a high Italian spin on the cuisines the people who make up NYC. These one-biters came at us so fast–in pairs or triplets–that I forgot to photograph the clam with celery and spicy oyster on the half shell. The Doughy caraway pretzels were like mustard-flavored gnocchi, the sable cigarette a kind-of-nasty/kind-of-clever reminder of the salmon cone at Per Se. The olive wasn’t an olive at all but a soft quail egg with a pleasant, not overpowering olive flavor; I was a little put off by the inedible accoutrements (though I would totally eat bay leaves if people would stop telling me I can’t) but loved the spoons they were presented on. The rabbit with carrot puree was sweet and herby with a crunchy base, and the caviar, served on a bed of buckwheat, was homey and warm. Not only was the caviar’s serving dish stunning, but we loved being able to decide how deep into the groats we wanted to plunge our knishes; the grain was easily crunched, like a nut. The chicken oyster, a nugget of dark meat on the chicken’s outer thigh, was so flavorful and juicy but really stood up to the cashews in a way I wouldn’t expect from such a tender piece of meat. The snails were sour, chewy, and only slightly less firm than the bacon chunks that accompanied them; it wasn’t my favourite dish of the night in flavor nor texture, but I appreciated the take on clams casino and was excited to try my first snail after all these years of fine dining without having ever been faced with one.
all paired with Lieb Cellars, Pinot Blanc, NV (nonvintage, which means it’s a blend of multiple years), NY
These beets, a nod to the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn that’s still so Russian you need a tourguide to help you navigate restaurant menus, were a mix of crisp and tender, fresh and long-cooked. Sour apples and fried onions added to the already bright flavors.
• mackerel in crazy water
I missed this photo, as well, likely dazed by the idea of eating a traditionally very fishy fish alongside the most dreaded of all foods for me: tomato. But this was more like a gazpacho than a fresh salad, and the mackerel–served raw–was so unfishy it could’ve been sturgeon or halibut. The tomatoes, which were preserved, had the flavor of watermelon, and the sea beans added a crisp bite.
Bloomer Creek, Tanzen Dame, 2010, NY
foie gras newberg
Served at the same time and meant to be shared, the foie gras and tartare are updates of dishes made famous by one of the oldest and most noted steakhouses in NYC, Delmonico’s. The original Lobster Newberg was made with a creamy, buttery, alcoholic sauce; here, the sweet foie is topped with a brandy gelee and served with a salty, meaty, spiced oyster mushroom salad.
The Delmonico’s tuna tartare becomes a steak tartare with crisp, sour cornichon slices and a Béarnaise sauce that I can only dumbly describe as buttery. The presentation wowed me to the point that I was still taking photos of the delicately-carved pickles even as half of them had already been devoured. Spread on the thickest, saltiest, caper-powdered potato chips, it was more finesse than novelty.
But you can bet the novelty of the Demonico’s plates wasn’t wasted on me.
Kalin Cellars, Chardonnay, 2005, CA
Dancing Ewe sheep ricotta and ramps
This gnocchi was covered in a sauce so creamy and dense with peppercorn flavor, I would’ve paid for the pleasure of licking the pan. The ramps had the texture of green onion but are known for their more intense aroma and what my boyfriend called their “racier” taste. The ramps evidently replace the scallions that were being served on the oft-photographed version of this made with Coach Farms goat cheese; it had a strip of coffee/caramel/tobacco water “leather” on the side with the word “COACH” stamped on it like the label of one of the knockoff designer handbags sold in Chinatown. The more straight presentation of this dish makes me wonder if Torrisi is headed away from whimsical presentations or if they just weren’t in the mood to use marijuana syrup to draw a sheep in a ballerina costume on my plate.
Just plain delicious, no matter what cuisines it’s trying to emulate, this vermicelli with lobster evoked the flavors of Chinatown with soy and scallion. The crunchy breadcrumbs made the lobster seem deep-fried, like sweet and sour pork gone high class.
Arnot Roberts, Rose, 2011, CA
This apparently replaced the much-lauded beef ragu for us and was probably a more interesting if not grandma-reminiscent dish. The chicken liver filling, contained in the most perfectly-cooked raviolo, verged on too iron-flavored at times but was nicely balanced by the sweetness of the tomato sauce. The brown butter with accents of sage added deep flavors ripe for red wine pairings. Food & Wine says that this dish was “named for the famed tenor who backed the epic NYC restaurant Mamma Leone’s ([chefs] Torrisi and Carbone cite Mamma Leone as an inspiration alongside Thomas Keller and Joël Robuchon in a video they made about themselves)”.
Coturri, Carignone, Testa Vineyard, 2009, CA
A young man brought this gleaming dish of tomahawk lamb chop to our table and unannoyedly held it while I photographed it. And then held it over the table of the people beside us when I said he was too close for my lens to focus. But in all fairness, they had been ogling our table all night as they sat there with the regular, ol’ prix-fixe dishes, so they owed me.
The loin and deckle together were not-fatty and fatty, gamey and not-gamey, delicious in their own ways when accompanied by fried mint and peeled grapes. The deckle had a thick glaze and a chewier texture, while the loin was leaner and less adorned. The chop itself was more impressive than the finished dish, but that’s always the way with these things.
Wind Gap, Syrah, 2008, CA
A sour, bitter palate cleanser to prepare us for the sweet, sweet desserts.
We were served two pieces from a large danish cut into fours and kept under a glass dome. It didn’t matter how our slices tasted, because all we could think was that we wanted the other two. It was buttery, with a burst of poppyseed flavor. The onions were sweet, the cheese so thick and creamy. But who was going to eat the other two pieces?! The kitchen? The servers? MORE IMPORTANT DINERS WHO GOT SIX SLICES INSTEAD OF FOUR? No! No, actually, our server returned with the other two slices when he saw us finish the first two. Phew.
Surprisingly creamy for an icy treat, with a strong bite from the ginger. This was unlike any shaved ice, snow cone, or slushie I’ve had.
This tasted like really expensive medicine, and I mean that in the best way. It was so strongly flavored, maraschino cherry ice cream alongside a root beer financier made of creamy mousse covered in a chocolate shell, with mashed pretzels providing the contrasting saltiness. All attempts to suck the cherry soda through the straw were fruitless and embarrassing, but at least it was edible.
Heitz Cellars, Port, NV, CA
People eating the prix-fixe around us were getting a small plate with the old-timey (and incredibly not-crave-worthy) bakery staple, the rainbow cookie, so we couldn’t have been more impressed when we instead were served this giant cake stand of pastries with the chef’s tasting. For each of us, there was an apple donut, a pistachio and lime truffle, a crumb cake, a pine nut macaron, celery cake, a really not-sweet cannoli, a mint chocolate truffle, and seaweed taffy. All of it was impressive. Even the seaweed taffy. They also sent us each home with a little box containing a rainbow cookie, ironically, and you know what? Even it was powerfully flavored and much, much better than any day-old rainbow cookie in any Italian bakery.
Torrisi is playful, gutsy, and aiming to please. The week before we dined here, my boyfriend and I had the chef’s tasting at a three-Michelin-starred restaurant that was supposed to be the best meal of our lives, and eating at Torrisi was a better experience. Where that restaurant was pretentious, Torrisi was humble. Where that restaurant was aloof, Torrisi was friendly, giving us details and stories associated with each dish. Where that restaurant was silent and imposing, Torrisi was filled with cool, jazzy music and couples not looking to out-foodie anyone. The only problem was that, as my boyfriend said, no one bite at Torrisi compared to any one bite at that restaurant. Nothing disappointed, but nothing had us using phrases like “the most” or “the best”, and we have used those words at similarly-priced restaurants. The effort is evident, though. You feel like Torrisi is making the absolute best food it can at this moment, and I have high hopes for its future.
Note: for the seven-course menu, reservations can be made up to a month in advance on the website or by calling (212) 965-0955. Reservations for the chef’s tasting can be made up to a month in advance and must be made by phone Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. I recommend calling right at 9 a.m., and even then, you’ll probably have to dial and redial for fifteen minutes straight to get through.
Torrisi Italian Specialties
250 Mulberry St.
New York, NY 10012 (map)