“I name a lot of different restaurants, and for whatever reason, they just latched on to Carbone, it’s become so synonymous with the account,” one of the founders of @deuxmoi tells me on a phone call. “Does anyone eat anywhere else? I get so excited when someone sends me a picture of their burger or something because I feel like all I post is Carbone.”
Carbone’s gone-Hollywood version of cooking linguine with clams arrived right as Instagram began to take off. Three months after the restaurant opened its doors in March 2013, the picture-sharing behemoth first allowed users to add video to their feeds. And Carbone is perhaps best seen as video streaming on an app, capturing this Sinatra-washed rigatoni fantasia, one that unfolds as if on a New York back lot in an L.A. movie studio filling in for Greenwich Village.
“Carbone’s like a movie set, where every waiter’s like an actor,” says Daniel Boulud, who once employed Carbone and Torrisi at his own Café Boulud. “Mario and Rich, they’re New Yorkers, and they have this nostalgia for classic New York, and it gives it this joie de vivre.”
The creators know this and relish the hell out of it. When talking about the restaurant, Carbone and Torrisi often bring up a concept they have dubbed “The Move.” The Moves are wink wink mini performances pulled off by the servers that weave together into a narrative, a series of over-accommodation that will charm and overwhelm and crescendo until you have been pomodoro-pilled.
“Generally it means unique service style moments, whether it’s the verbiage we use, how the captain guides you, the spiel they use to rattle off specials,” Torrisi says. “And people might not notice the Move, and that’s the point—the point is that you aren’t thinking about it because we got you, we captured your imagination, we’re pouring wine quickly and we’re getting you a cocktail and you’re having a great time and that’s why you’re coming back. That’s a Move.”
I had dinner at Carbone on the first Sunday of May, and the main takeaway, apart from the relentlessly euphoria-inducing fare, was something like: This is an unapologetically self-aware way to go out for a meal. Contra the boys, it’s not so much a series of Moves but a sequence of discrete actions unfurling as a narrative about the Move. The first Move is a meta one: leading us past the main dining room with tiles reminiscent of those in the restaurant in which Michael Corleone accepted his destiny in The Godfather, through the kitchen à la Scorsese’s direction en route to the best table at the Copacabana in Goodfellas. Another Move is a capitan greeting the table in a tuxedo, handshakes all around, launching into an antipasti assault: gratis salami from down Bleecker Street; a Brobdingnagian basket of various carbs topped with a square of grandma bread the size of a stop sign; oily, pepper-flecked cauliflower giardiniera; and fist-size chunks of Parmesan. Out comes the tableside-tossed Caesar but also a tire-size platter of extra-rich beef carpaccio speckled with ant-size chives. Out comes the spicy rigatoni vodka but also off-the-menu gnocchi slathered in fresh ramp butter. Out comes the lobster fra diavolo but also that famous veal Parm, cut tableside. Out come the coffees but also a bottle of Sambuca, dropped at the table for diners to use to spike at will.
Also a Move: that time the waiter handed over comically large menus and then rattled off the night’s oysters, a list as long as the names of who begat whom in the book of Genesis, ending with “New Brunswick—and that’s Canada, not Jersey! No offense to Jersey though.” Wink wink. One last Move: placing a Tesla-size basket of chestnuts and other unidentifiable shells on the table—“This is a nutcracker, and ladies, you only use them on these nuts.”
But then the Move could not account for the fact that in the back room’s corner booth sat Aviv “Vivi” Nevo, the überwealthy Zelig-like investor with a self-fashioned mystique—for years, his top Google searches said that he was ungoogleable. Or that a tablemate came back from the bathroom to announce he had just been introduced to Olivia Rodrigo, the stratospheric 19-year-old pop star, who was sitting with, among others, the actor Sebastian Stan and Valentino creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli.
Here, though, are two variables that might get us closer to solving for Carbone’s gravitational force. Within hours of dinner, the Daily Mail and @deuxmoi had each reported that Rodrigo had been at Carbone on the night before the Met Gala, complete with Thompson-Street-as-runway snaps of her in a see-through chain-mail dress. That Nevo held court at a table in the back room wasn’t reported anywhere.
Unlike your usual celeb-studded clubstaurants—your Taos and your Buddakans and your Catches—the cuisine at Carbone has earned three stars from Pete Wells at The New York Times. This sort of critical appraisal is something of an important marker in the evolution of fine dining in New York. Krishnendu Ray, a professor of food studies at New York University and author of The Ethnic Restaurateur, explained that Italian cuisine is becoming one of the dominant forms of haute cuisine, gaining ground on French and Japanese. If you go to a globalized luxury hotel in Bangkok or Buenos Aires, the restaurant there is more likely than anything else to be serving Italian food. But this very often tends to be Italian Italian food, which means the food the wealthy eat in Milan or Genoa, not Italian American food. Spaghetti and meatballs was invented here by Italians who saw their jobs eliminated as the Industrial Revolution spread down the boot, forcing them to come to America in droves until the National Origins Act of 1924 limited immigration. Ray said that, to his knowledge, no one had seriously tried to elevate this cuisine to the peaks of gastronomy and hospitality until restaurants like Carbone did.
“Carbone is very significant, because it’s the food of the poor immigrants, and it’s fighting against the Northern Italian disdain,” said Ray.
Mario Carbone has none of this disdain, and despite the high-flying Miami lifestyle punctuated by bro hugs from LeBron, he’s still the kid from Queens who worked at local eateries through high school. The red-sauce joint on Thompson might be just one of the 30+ restaurants on three continents under the Major Food Group umbrella, but Carbone is the flagship restaurant and the one that bears his name.
“The idea to do what Carbone is, that’s more acutely Mario’s particular dream as a young chef,” says Torrisi, whose name graced their first restaurant, Torrisi Italian Specialties.
On a brisk Texas morning on the last day of March, I am sitting with Carbone at the new Carbone in Dallas, in the bones of a restaurant set to open, alarmingly, that night. It doesn’t look ready, but he is. Carbone was born to Italian Americans in a residential part of Queens, and his grandparents, who came over from Italy as adults, were always around, always cooking.
“My grandfather would wake up, he’d get dressed, and part of getting dressed, he’d put an apron on,” Carbone tells me. “And then, for the remainder of the day, he has an apron on, watching TV, gardening, doing something outside, actually cooking,” Carbone continues. “And my grandmother was his consummate doting sous chef…. So when they were watching me, I was always in the kitchen.”
Home-cooked Italian food was part of the culture, but he was also fascinated by the business model of a restaurant, the magician’s sleight of hand that happens in an invisible back room where you choose what you want and it miraculously appears. He worked at seafood joints in Queens to make pocket money for dates, and after high school decided to bet on cooking as a way forward. He enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America, the go-to incubator for kitchen stars.