Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone started small with their first project together, a sandwich shop that opened in 2009, serving hoagies by day and tasting menus by night. But Torrisi Italian Specialties, that low-key debut, blew up in a flash, its inventive riffs on Italian-American classics catapulting the young chefs onto the national stage. Soon there were glossy magazine profiles, restaurant awards and long lines out the door. It wasn’t long before they outgrew their very small space.
When your first restaurant goes platinum, all eyes are trained on your next project. Torrisi and Carbone unspooled theirs in two parts, turning their original venue into a serious restaurant (all tasting menus, all the time) and moving its casual half into the vacant spot next door. Parm, that new cozy annex, is the Italian-American deli the daytime Torrisi strived to be, with more sandwiches and sides, new starters and mains, and a full-service bar with house wines and cocktails.
The decor pays kitschy homage to the old-school venues that inspired this cooking, with wallpaper from the 1950s, neon, Formica and red swivel barstools. But while the menu reads as well-worn as the space, the food is new and exciting, prepared by grease-spattered cooks in white paper caps who happen to have high-end restaurant résumés. (Torrisi and Carbone worked together at Café Boulud.)
As at Torrisi, the co-owner chefs offer dramatic improvements on the food they grew up on, without sacrificing the integrity of the original dishes. Instead of the chopped bivalves and soaked breading that still pass for baked clams in some quarters, Parm does the dish as everyone ought to—with tender littlenecks just cooked through in their shells, fragrant with garlic, butter, white wine and lemon; and crispy from bread crumbs made from sesame bread sticks. The garlic bread too is the platonic ideal, slathered in a compound butter of roasted garlic, powdered tomato and house-dried oregano. Order it “deluxe,” with a side of fruity tomato sauce and house-made ricotta.
Fried calamari, served in a plastic basket, is light and crispy like the best fritto misto, tenderized from a soak in seltzer before being dusted in rice flour. And their baked ziti, a far cry from the casserole mush of so many suburban suppers, is perfect al dente baked pasta in sweet marinara with crispy bits around the edges (from searing portions to order on all sides on the flattop). Add on the optional meat gravy, a delicious slow-simmered mix of ground beef, veal and pork.
These dishes and the hugely popular sandwiches once served next door make up the regular menu at Parm, available daily at lunch and dinner. The new venue does brisk takeout business, too, selling the city’s best chicken Parmesan and Italian-deli-meat hoagies to go from a corner of the bar.
After 6pm nightly, you’ll also find the restaurant’s version of a blue-plate special, a single substantial entrée for each day of the week—and by far the priciest thing here, at $25 apiece. On Wednesdays, there are big, beautiful pork chops, shoulder meat from heritage-breed pigs rubbed in dry pizza spices and topped with a chunky ragù of hot peppers, tomatoes and onions. And on Friday night, the aromas of zuppa di pesce fill the narrow dining room—fragrant with soffrito cooked low and slow, and shrimp stock reduced with tomato and chili into a rich, nuanced elixir. Though the zuppa stands by itself, the gently poached mussels, clams, squid, shrimp and scallops added just before service make this soup a feast.
Dessert, which Torrisi used to limit to Little Italy rainbow cookies, now includes warm yeasty jelly doughnuts and a supersized slice of Carvel-style ice-cream cake, layering house-made pistachio, strawberry and chocolate gelato in between chocolate crunchies.
All of this—the playful updates, the cultish crowds—feels familiar. As with David Chang, whose empire was built on the shoulders of ramen, Torrisi and Carbone have shown us that their humble deli debut was just the beginning of a full-court press on the city. A Parm branch, perhaps the first of many, is already open at Yankee Stadium, and a new project is in development a few blocks away in the old Rocco Ristorante space. Memorize these names now, NYC: They’ll be on the lips of tastemakers for years to come.—Jay Cheshes
Eat this: Baked clams, garlic bread “deluxe,” fried calamari, baked ziti, zuppa di pesce, ice-cream cake
Drink this: The nostalgic cocktails include a classic Negroni with an earthy vegetal note from beet-infused gin, and a sort of spiked root-beer float with ginger beer, Root liquor and a touch of vanilla (both $12). Though the house wine comes in straw-lined chianti bottles, it’s not old-fashioned swill but a food-friendly sangiovese blend made especially for the restaurant by Palmina in California ($12 a glass).
Sit here: The tables, squeezed into the back of the cramped dining room, aren’t terribly comfortable. For more room and better views—of the open kitchen on one side and Mulberry Street out the window—grab a stool at the bar.
Conversation piece: The neon sign of a cartoon squid on roller skates that hangs near the entrance was designed for the restaurant by the graffiti artist Marco, whose work adorns walls across lower Manhattan. When the lit stoplight is green, that means the restaurant has calamari in stock.