I heard the whispers from the horse’s mouth. A year ago, when I interviewed Mario Carbone for Nowness, he told me that he and his partners Rich and Jeff were taking over the old Rocco space. I’ve been desperate to experience Carbone ever since. Brainchild of the team behind Torrisi and Parm, Carbone is an 75-seat ode to the Italian eateries of a bygone era, a carefully curated, sometimes deft, often amusing time machine that serves great food.
When I walk in on a Tuesday at 9:30, a gaggle of hostesses greet us and direct us to the demi-lune bar, pulsing with people. Luckily for me, I am with an extremely pretty girl—one for whom crowds form or part, depending on the circumstance—and as we sidle up to the bar, the throngs part just enough for us to order two enormous, desperately needed negronis. The bartender, who looks dapper in his waistcoat and bow tie, handles the hilariously enormous beaker, stir as long as my forearm and fist-size block of ice, adeptly. I’m reminded of the artistry of cocktail making at Angel’s Share, a New York benchmark of libation excellence.
Soon we’re sitting in the back room—a dark haven close to the kitchen, with Julian Schnabel and Frencesco Clemente paintings on the walls (Schnabel’s son Vito, an art dealer and friend of the restaurateurs curated the pieces, which are a melange of top echelon New York artists). We peer at each other from over the top of comically enormous menus, decorated with cartoons of the restaurant’s facade and its creators.
I’m in heaven as Doo-wop favorites from Claudette to Barbara Ann play constantly from the speakers, until around 11pm, when the soundtrack turns entirely to hip hop, a different version of heaven. Tupac’s “Changes” picks up where the crooners left off; a surprising soundtrack, only if you don’t know the restaurateurs simultaneous obsessions with history and hip hop.
And now down to the nitty gritty, the real reason one should go to a restaurant, and the deciding factor on whether or not a restaurant is worth its weight: The Food. We ignore enticing chunks of gratis parmesan and a selection of house made breads, bracing ourselves for the feast to come. An array of sea creatures from the “Seafood Cocktail” arrives: bay scallop crudo with charred lemon juice, chives and leek; fluke crudo with a salsa verde (opal basil, ramps and parsley), with fluke fin seared on the plancha; and the irresistible urchin, served with oregano, spicy breadcrumbs and confit habanero in its spiny shell.
Next plates of exquisite halved Scottish langoustines and rich red paper-thin carpaccio with arugula, shaved shitake, and walnut are placed before us. The scent of truffles wafts up from the vivid meat. My pescatarian date dives straight for the buttery, garlicky langoustines, scooping their tender, barely cooked flesh from their shallow shells, while I dig into the carpaccio. Everything we taste is unimpeachable: perfectly cooked, and the raw food beautifully seasoned and sourced; delicious.
Our captain, clad in a purple Zac Posen suit, steered us toward linguine vongole “the way Chef Mario likes it—with a little bit o’ tomato,” and the result is fantastic. Pasta just al dente; the garlic brininess of the classic dish mitigated by the acidic sweetness that the tomato lends. Pink middled meat balls of a beef-pork-veal blend with fried basil leaves are delicious but I’m running out of room.
Last savory, but certainly not least, is the Bass “Alison”—named for partner Jeff Zalaznick’s wife. Steamed with lime and kaffir, plated table-side (by Chef himself) and served with confited potatoes, the fish is dexterously light but ever so flavorful.
A dessert tray as big as the Ritz arrives and boasts carrot and cheese cakes, tiramisu with a lady finger girdle. A delicious vinsanto-like dessert wine, homemade limoncello and grapa bottles suddenly take up residence on our table. The edges of my vision begin to blur. I’m having a Peggy Sue Got Married experience. Is Chef Mario really sitting beside us, telling us about his penchant for handpainted china?! Are we really on a tour of the maze of galleys and passages beneath and behind the restaurant, even more lost in time?
When I enthusiastically recount the trip to a foodie friend, he balks and asks me if I really enjoyed the gimmick? “What gimmick?” I respond. Restaurants have become sononymous with an invented reality, manipulated by the owners to create an atmosphere ideal in which to enjoy their culinary maneuvers; how is this any different? Like their food, the experience is excellent and fun! It’s theater, and the food is the art—the narrative, the true star…how could the set design and acting not be essential if it’s purpose is to best show off the art?
These guys are wise—masters of creating their own interpretations of that which inspires them, and anyone who wants to (and is able to pay $80+ for Lobster Fra Diavola) can and should get on board and enjoy the delicious ride. The only thing guests should take seriously is the food, and it’s so good, that it’s impossible not to take it seriously, even when your feet are bouncing to the beat of the Shangri-Las.
181 Thompson St. between Bleecker & Houston
New York, NY 10028
For Reservations: (212) 254-3000
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