March 31, 2013 | BITE: My Journal

Is This Oh-So-Hot Carbone?

Spicy Calabrese bread crumbs gift a lift to slightly listless linguine clams.
Spicy Calabrese bread crumbs gift a lift to slightly listless linguine clams.

           “Carbone” it says on the blackboard outside. Can this stark little spot on West 38th Street really be the hot new Carbone, the fantasy of Fifties Italian with its $50 Veal Parmesan by the fabulous Torrisi boys? “331 West 38th Street at 8 o’clock,” my assistant has written on my Post-it. My friends are never late. I’m sitting at the bar, ten minutes, fifteen minutes.  Somber men in long black overcoats lumber in and out.

           “This can’t be Carbone,” I wail. “There must be another Carbone.” How stupid can I be? I left my phone at home. The man at the end of the bar grunts. “Where is the other Carbone?” I cry. “Help me please. Somebody. Google it.” 

By day on Thompson Street it says Rocco. At night it lights up and says Carbone. 

          “Do you know where it is?” the bartender asks her boss.

           “It’s in the Village,” he says.

           “Where in the Village?” I beg. Now I know why my friends carry smartphones in their hands at all times.  It’s already 8:25. I’m never late.

          “It’s on Thompson,” he says, growling. “Between Bleecker and Hudson,” he says. “Tell your friends not to call here for the table,” he says, as I race out the door.

           Impossible. Thompson is nowhere near Hudson. I tell the cabby: “Thompson Street, between Bleecker and Hudson.”  I’m lucky. He’s a weaver, not a debater. He races downtown, pulls in at the red neon sign.

           “I figured you meant Houston not Hudson,” he says.

The menu is tall as a toddler, big and stiff. You hold it on your lap or knock over a glass.

           I practically fall in the door. At the maitre d’ stand, an attractive young woman welcomes me. “Here, let me take your coat.” She leads me out back across the tile floor supposedly inspired by a scene in  “The Godfather.”

           “We were worried about you,” my friends greet me. “You’re never late.” 

Carbone Focaccia
Focaccia is best eaten warm from the oven, not 45 minutes after you realize you’re lost.

           “I’ve been waiting for you at the real Carbone on West 38th Street.” I explain. How stupid could I be! Of course, this is the new arriviste Carbone. “Run Around Sue,” on the speakers. “Hey Mr. Postman.” Bright lights kitchen. Serious paintings, curated by Schnabel scion Vito, on bare brick walls. Expensive poverty chic.

Must be a VIP at this table because we didn’t order this delicious “bruised” carpaccio.

           My pals have been nibbling the house’s freebie starters. A few chunks of Chianti-washed Parmesan-style cheese remain on a ceramic saucer. I get that Il Mulino vibe. Focaccia, doused with a savory soak, would be better hot. I imagine it was toasty 45 minutes ago when I was stewing uptown. I eat it anyway. I’m ravenous. Seems I missed Tony Bennett. But I wave to Michael White with his wife and ghost writer Andrew Friedman with his Caitlin in the opposite corner. White pretty much thinks he owns Italian excess in this town. Of course, Mario has every right to think he owns it too.

Dip your breadstick or a crust or even your finger in this tempting olive oil.

          I make an effort to be amusing, to make up for my tardiness. I sneak a peek at the menu. It’s huge. It’s bigger than the NY Times unfolded, except unlike the daily, it’s stiff. I try to open it without knocking over my $17 Manhattan. I’m getting to be a connoisseur of cocktails. This one is good. I like the breadsticks too – commercial stock, gussied up in-house, the waiter admits, designed to dip into olive oil with pickled bits afloat.

Clams three ways, all of them marvelous, make an antipasto to share.

           Baked clams three ways, one each of each for each of us arrive. Crumbed clams oreganata, four swathed in lardo, another four with garam marsala tucked under plump sea urchin. Heady, chewy, fabulous. And there’s beef carpaccio too, fashionably decked out with big bruises of fresh black truffle – intensely perfumed, a gift from the chef, says the waiter. Luis is his name. 

Got to give our waiter credit: the spicy rigatoni vodka is mighty fine.

           I’m not sure I’m going to like Luis, he has a slightly sleazy silent movie air. He might have been sent by Central Casting. Or perhaps he was found hanging in a closet here at what used to be Rocco’s, leftover from who knows what decade, never mind the tuxedo by Zac Posen. He affects a certain friendly air but the effort shows. Normally he would tell people like us what to order. “I’ll take care of everything,” he would say. Now he pretends to be listening to us, writing down our order, checking it twice.

We ask for meatballs. We get meatballs. But not on the rigatoni. Luis the waiter wins.

           Luis has plans of his own. We’d asked to share one order of linguine with clams. As we hesitate, he urges us to try the spicy rigatoni with vodka and my friend requests one order of that too, but with meatballs instead of vodka. Luis is having none of our nonsense. He swoops in with a duo of waiters, delivering four half portions of linguine. By the time they’ve planted a platter of vodka’d rigatoni, another of meatballs, and saucers of peppery oil and hot pepper flakes, the tablecloth has pretty much disappeared under the onslaught.

           The linguine lacks clam flavor, though the offered spicy Calabrese crumbs on top add a nice je ne sais quoi. And Luis is right, damn it – the rigatoni is marvelous.  True to its vintage provenance, the pasta is not as al dente as it could be.

This photo by a gobsmacked diner doesn’t give a clue how gargantuan this veal chop is.

           The four of us can scarcely make a dent in the $50 veal Parmesan, which actually is a thick veal steak that arrives with its bone as an accessory, looking at first rather like a thick pizza. It would be better if it were rarer. We might do it justice if we hadn’t already eaten a dinner-and-a-half. 

Why is there Chinese chicken at Carbone? Perhaps because Mott is so close to Mulberry.

           My friends don’t see what Chinese chicken and pork ribs sprinkled with cherry pepper slivers have to do with mid-century Italian culture. I figure it’s just the Torrisi team throwing in a screwball or two. Though actually, I once went to a rib festival in Tuscany. None of us can manage more than a half spoonful of the silken Torrisi polenta. “It’s my fault,” I admit. “I ordered too much.”  But too much could be the mantra here.

I’ve been around as long as most Italian grandmas and they do eat ribs. Ask Cesare.

           We are all feeling a little sickly now, like turkeys must, overstuffed for Thanksgiving. Even so, we agree to look at desserts. Luis lugs over a heavy tray for show and tell: there’s a gorgeous cheesecake paved with candied lemon slices, and a fantastical swirled carrot cake that Eater has compared to a drawing by M.C. Escher. And I don’t remember what else, but I promise you, much else.

If you miss the rolling French pastry carts of the 70’s, let Luis roll over with this one.

           In unison, we decline and ask for the check. Luis’s eyebrows knot. He frowns. You know how this ends. Dessert comes anyway. And Luis returns, smirking, with four glasses in one hand and two bottles in the other: grappa and homemade Limoncello. The chorus of emphatic “No, No, No” sends him reluctantly backing away.

I wanted to taste the cheesecake, the carrot cake, chocolate too. I just didn’t want to die.

           The Torrisi team, Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone, started small on Mulberry Street in a grocery store with a tasting dinner and no reservations, and then reached for mid-century authentica at tiny Parm. Now, with partner Jeff Zalaznick and irrepressible enthusiasm, ironic or sincere, one cannot say for sure, they’ve expanded the vintage theme, broadened the menu size, put on the Ritz, and exaggerated wherever possible.

I caught Rich Torrisi in the kitchen but Mario Carbone was up front saying goodnight.

           Some prices will seem scarily inflated: like $45 for hot or cold antipasto (dare I assume it will serve two?), $38 for an appetizer of scampi alla scampi, the $140 Mixed Grill Cacciatore for two. Our bill Friday night was $112 per person with tip. Not outrageous, considering the floorshow. And Carbone is fun.  Half of what I tasted was very good. But keep in mind this is really just an early first impression.

           It isn’t going to be easy to snag a table. I thought I’d write this BITE now so you can decide how hard you’re willing to scheme to get in. Meanwhile, you might give the  original Carbone a break. The pizza I saw the owner eating looked great. I’m planning to go myself with friends one day this week.

Carbone Ristorante Italiano 331 West 38th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. 212 290 2625

Carbone (at Rocco) 181 Thompson between Bleecker and Houston Streets.
212 254 3000


Photographs may not be used without permission of Gael Greene.  Copyright 2013. All rights reserved. Photo of Rocco on Thompson Street used with permission of Rachelle Hruska

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