The Italian-American supper clubs immortalized in mob movies and sepia-toned photos were never as dreamy as they seemed. And the red-sauce classics still served behind curtained windows at clubby holdouts like Il Mulino and Rao’s are rarely as inspiring as our memories of them. The young guns behind Carbone, though, have moved beyond sentimentality in their homage to these restaurants by flipping the whole genre onto its head.
The new spot, from tag-team chefs Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone, is a Godfather hangout on steroids, more fantastical set piece than history-bound throwback. Like Torrisi and Parm, their earlier projects together, it’s a hyped-up spin on a vanishing form, a restaurant where, bread sticks to bowties, everything looks, tastes and feels like much more of itself.
Under brass chandeliers, on navy walls, hangs brash modern art on old-school Italianate themes, curated, like the food here, by a downtown tastemaker (Julian Schnabel’s son Vito). The waiters, a seasoned crew plucked from powerhouse dining rooms all throughout the city, have the smooth steps and cool banter of celluloid pros. But Zac Posen designed their wide-lapelled burgundy tuxes. And the moneyed swells blowing their bankrolls in the entry-level front room or more sedate VIP inner sanctum—out back near the kitchen—aren’t capos or dons but young bankers and food-obsessed hipsters.
Whether you know a guy who knows a guy or simply scored your seat on OpenTable, you’ll feel like an insider as you pass under the antique neon sign hanging above the door, left over from Rocco, the 90-year-old joint this new hot spot replaced. Those swarming waiters ply every table with complimentary extras, swooping in with a hollowed cheese, big as a drum, stuffed with sharp chianti-soaked Parmesan nuggets (aged up the block at Murray’s), with smoky whispers of Broadbent ham carved from a haunch on a dining room pedestal.
The enormous menu, which opens as wide as The New York Times, reads like an encyclopedia of red-checkered classics. But co-chefs Torrisi and Carbone have made such dramatic improvements, you’ll barely recognize anything. You’ve never had a Caesar salad like their tableside masterpiece, a beautifully dressed, nuanced variation on the classic, amplified with warm garlic-bread croutons, two types of anchovies and three types of cheese.
You may have already heard about the restaurant’s exorbitant prices—that salad will set you back $17—but there’s real value in the top-shelf raw materials and gargantuan servings, and in the unbridled excess of the whole dining experience.
An antipasti selection priced like a meal, at $49 per person and portioned accordingly, offers an excellent overview of what this kitchen can do. Order it at your peril, though. The coursed-out seven-plate sampler—a sort of appetizer tasting menu—is so substantial, you may not make a dent in your entrée. A recent selection—the mix changes daily—featured sea urchin so fresh it arrived in its spindly shell, and warm just-made mozzarella under an extravagant dollop of Petrossian caviar. There was foie gras too, velvety mousse topped like Venetian calves’ liver in a trio of onions (pickled red, grilled green and raw chives).
Even going a less extravagant route—starting with the exceptional baked clams, say, or meaty grilled octopus—there’s not a meal to be eaten at Carbone that’s not over-the-top. Pastas are so across-the-board rich and intense, they’re best split in half as a shared middle course. The rigatoni alla vodka is like a Gucci edition of the overexposed Italian-American standard, its exceptional house-made maccheroni drenched in spicy cream and sweet melted onions.
If you’ve ordered like this—hard to resist with so many good things to choose from—you may be starting to panic by now, with carni on the way. The $50 veal Parmesan is almost too big for its plate—a pitch-perfect mix of tender meat and crispy crust, of gooey cheese and bright tomato topping. There might also be beautifully caramelized cherry-pepper ribs on the table. Take them home with you for a day-after lunch.
You’ll need to save space for at least a small taste of the can’t-miss desserts, on enticing display on a tray near the door. Carrot cake with ginger icing and candied walnuts is a delicious, moist, towering stunner. The tiramisu is also spectacular, no relation at all to the usual goopy mess, a tightly constructed six layers of house-made ladyfingers and whipped mascarpone finished with Nutella ganache and crisp cookie crumbles.
You’ll be glad to find bottles of house-infused limoncello and grappa on the table—a luxury offered to everyone at no extra charge. Linger as long as you like, soak up the scene. You’re going to need some time to recover.
Eat this: Caesar salad, baked clams, antipasti tasting, rigatoni alla vodka, veal Parmesan, tiramisu
Drink this: Bar whiz Thomas Waugh’s dazzling riffs on cocktail standbys (each $15) include an extremely refreshing rye collins with fresh-pressed celery juice and a rosemary sprig garnish. Though the monster wine list skews extra-pricey, the sommelier can find something decent within your range, like an off-menu Guttarolo Primitivo, a beautifully balanced light red ($65).
Conversation piece: The art in the two dining rooms is divided along generational lines. The front room is hung with new art stars (Dan Colen, Terence Koh, the Bruce High Quality Foundation), the back with longer-established types (Julian Schnabel, Ron Gorchov, Francesco Clemente), all from New York.
By Jay Cheshes